I’m writing this sat at my kitchen table with a Weetabix-encrusted bowl on my left and an abandoned Paw Patrol car to my right. This is meant to be flexible working utopia: a world where family and office needs ebb and flow.
But the truth is, effective flexible working isn’t being trapped in your own four walls with a laptop. We aren’t working from home at the moment, we’re in our homes working in the context of a pandemic. The two are poles apart. Our kitchen tables or cramped home offices aren’t the magic fix-all for toxic office culture. Our campaign Flex Appeal - to fight for flexible working for everyone - launched a recent report with construction firm Sir Robert McAlpine and social change agency Claremont entitled ‘Forever Flex: Flexible working beyond a pandemic’. What it found is that 2020 is not the time to hail a flexible working revolution because people are burning out by always being ‘on’. We’re in a period of ‘fake flex’ where employees are competing to prove their worth by logging on 24/7 and in turn aren’t taking a break, resulting in them breaking.
Right now companies are patting themselves on the backs for ‘opening the floodgates’ to flexibility when really they had no choice but to release everyone into their homes. If they didn’t Zoom in over the last eight months, they’d have had to shut down. It seems when cold, hard cash is on the table anything is possible.
But alongside increased mental health issues, gender inequality is widening at a terrifying pace. If SARS and Ebola is anything to go by, we know women’s progression is stunted in a pandemic. Who looks after Covid19 patients when out of hospital? Invariably women. Who sets up What’s App groups to ensure everyone in the community has everything they need? It tends to be women. And who is logging off from their careers to homeschool and care for their kids and the elderly? The MacInsey report says women - The Institute for Fiscal Studies found mothers are 47% more likely to have lost their job or quit in the pandemic than fathers.
It’s also interesting and equally disturbing that this year Gender Pay Gap reporting was halted. Unlike VAT where the deadline was extended, Gender Pay Gap reporting was stopped entirely. This means at a point where women’s careers are already taking a backseat, we won’t have the transparency needed to push companies to close that glaring black hole of inequality in 2021 and beyond.
But it’s not all doom and gloom. The swathes of companies refusing flexible working requests in 2019 because it ‘just won’t work’ have no wriggle room in 2020. The tech is in place, Slack is now being used and no one thinks those working from home are ‘slackers’. Multi-billion pound companies like Twitter have seen increased productivity and generally people - both employers and employees - want to continue working in a more flexible way in the future.
The issue lies in boundaries. How to switch off when your colleagues are always on. Some people are using their out of office to book-end their day while others are working to clear targets that don’t require bums-on-seats visibility, simply results - whenever, wherever.
But to truly understand how the pandemic has impacted our working world, we’ll have to wait for 2021. And if 2020 is anything to go by, who knows where we’ll be theN.