Will 2021 be the year flexible working finally becomes the norm?

This week, the minister for women and equalities, Liz Truss, called for flexible working to be normalised as part of the UK economy’s Covid-19 recovery. Here, Stylist explores what this could mean for work in 2021. 

Over the next couple of weeks, many people will be marking the one-year anniversary since they first started working from home. It’s been a lot, hasn’t it? While WFH certainly has its perks (I’m looking at you, loungewear), there’s no denying that the last year’s arrangements have certainly had their challenges.

So, as lockdown restrictions begin to lift for the third time and we all start to look forward to a world post-coronavirus, the conversation about the future of work – and whether or not we’ll return to the office – is heating up.

While, for some, the idea of never returning to the office isn’t that big of a deal, for others, it’s not so simple. Working from home has taken its toll on the mental health of workers up and down the country – you only need to look at the rising levels of burnout to catch a glimpse of this – and levels of loneliness have also skyrocketed. In fact, according to a recent survey of 2000 UK workers by Currys PC World and Canon, while three in four workers want to work at least some of the time at home in the future, a third cite a lack of collaboration as the worst aspect of remote working. 

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But that’s not forgetting that being able to work from home does have its advantages. In the same study, 37% identified a better work/life balance as one of the main benefits of remote working, with 54% citing not having to commute as their favourite part. And while 26% did believe the boundaries between work and home life had become blurred as a result of working from home, a fifth admitted to taking longer breaks when they were away from the office.

For many of us, it seems like working from home has been a real mixed bag. Whether you’ve enjoyed the last 12 months or found them unbearable, it’s clear that we need to find a middle ground between office life and full-time WFH – and that’s where flexible working could come in. 

On top of allowing employees to work from home, a flexible working arrangement can include part-time/flexi-time hours and job shares.

Although working from home is often mistaken for flexible working, it’s just one aspect of it. As previously reported by Stylist, the current WFH situation many of us are facing is not ‘flexible working’, because we’re still being required to work fixed hours and at fixed times of the day. By definition, flexible working gives employees a lot more freedom – to not only have the choice to work from home (or wherever they want, for that matter) but to have flexible start and finish times, fit their work around other responsibilities (such as childcare) and access a job share arrangement where necessary.  

And now, thanks to a move by the minister for women and equalities, Liz Truss, it could become a reality for thousands of workers up and down the country. In a statement published on the government website, Truss has called for flexible working to be “normalised” as part of the UK economy’s Covid-19 recovery, to capitalise on the shift in mindset triggered by the pandemic. 

Flexible working isn’t just about letting a few people work in a different way, this is about companies becoming diverse and inclusive employers

This is an important move for multiple reasons. The fact that flexible working offers a “best of both worlds” kind of arrangement for people who have loved the freedom of working from home but have missed the community of the office is just one benefit. According to Truss, it could help boost job opportunities for women (who are more likely to have to disrupt their careers as a result of caregiving duties) and reduce geographical inequality.

Flexible working could also lead to a more diverse and representative workforce, as flexible working campaigner and Heart radio presenter Anna Whitehouse previously told Stylist

“Flexible working isn’t just about letting a few people work in a different way, this is about companies becoming diverse and inclusive employers,” she said. 

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“Many companies just think flexible working is a simple change to the way people work, but it means more than that – you’re allowing those with disabilities to work, you’re allowing those with caring responsibilities to work, and you’re allowing humans who just want to live and work to work.

“It’s a huge shift – and it’s a systemic change that needs to happen.”

Although it’s not yet clear whether Truss’ statement will lead to any direct action, it’s a big step in the right direction for campaigners who have been calling for this change since before the pandemic. For now, what is clear is that the appetite for flexible working arrangements is only set to grow – and as we move out of the pandemic, it’s something that remains at the forefront of many people’s minds.

To find out more about flexible working – including what it means and your rights when asking an employer about it – you can check out these articles or visit the government website.   

Images: Getty

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