Post-COVID 19: flexible working & remote meetings
It’s difficult to look beyond the coronavirus crisis currently.
Firstly – and most importantly – there is the awful and growing human cost of the pandemic to consider. But there are also many other implications to think about in the longer-term including the financial costs, damage to mental health, and the delay in diagnosis and treatment of other illnesses and conditions. Any or all of these items will present challenges for employees, employers, and the government in the months and years ahead.
But as employers and HR professionals we also need to look beyond the current crisis and concerns, to see what lessons we can learn from this very difficult period. Because at some – as yet unspecified – point in the future the world of work will return to something like business as usual. And when that longed-for day finally arrives, it is likely that the nation’s recent experiences might result in some unexpectedly rapid changes to the UK’s working environment and practices.
And perhaps the first significant area of change might be an entirely new attitude towards flexible working, and home working in particular.
Of course in the 21st Century home working is no longer the novelty it once was, and this is largely because technology has enabled many more workers to consider this option, and indeed the law supports the workers right to request it too.
Yet despite this progress, it is still the case that many employers continue to see barriers to implementing flexible working. Indeed the CIPD suggest employer objections include line manager attitudes, lack of senior-level support, and concerns about meeting operational and customer requirements. It is presumably for these reasons that in 2018 only 1 in every 10 jobs was advertised as flexible.
But the current crisis might well overturn some of these objections, particularly as large swathes of the UK working population are now actively being encouraged to work from home by their line-managers or employers. And having been given the green-light to work in this way, it’s likely that many will prove beyond all reasonable doubt that they can indeed work just as effectively at home as they do in the office. It follows that at least some will continue to work in this way once the crisis has passed.
The good news here is that research suggests that 87% of employees would like to work more flexibly, so providing that opportunity could also prove useful to employers who are likely to benefit from better retention and worker engagement too.
The requirement to work at home - and therefore not travel to the usual place of work for all those regular meetings - might also have a further implication for the post-crisis workplace.
Technology can again play a part here, and perhaps many of the more routine daily meetings in the workplace might in future shift from actual physical presence of all to optional remote attendance instead. Indeed this is already happening. Three weeks into the UK’s lockdown and most HR professionals will have now attended a large number of successful remote meetings, be that via Skype, Zoom, or the good old fashioned conference call.
Such meetings have been made necessary by the unusual circumstances we find ourselves in, but it is undeniable that the use of technology has helped many businesses continue to function during the most challenging circumstances possible.
And many organisations will also notice the savings in both time and travel costs of those remote gatherings compared to physical attendance. So it is possible that in future the more routine daily meetings might take place virtually to maintain operational efficiency.
Another benefit of more virtual attendance will be a welcome reduction in presenteeism, which is the rather grand title used for people attending the workplace whilst ill.
Workplace presenteeism has been dramatically increasing since the end of the last financial crisis, presumably as a result of increased work pressures and career uncertainty. This of course has potentially serious implications for the ill employee’s physical and mental health. And then of course there is the risk of onwards transmissions of an illness to those they come into contact with during the working day.
This last point is significant. Over the last few weeks the entire UK population has become acutely aware of the space needed to avoid transmission of the coronavirus (or indeed similar illnesses), and it is space that frankly very few workplace meeting rooms would usually allow attendees. So if ill employees can attend meetings remotely as needed, then this reduces the risk for all involved.
Physical meetings will remain important
Yet virtual meetings and attendance will only take UK businesses so far.
There will always be occasions when a physical meeting of attendees will produce a much better understanding and outcome than its virtual equivalent. And physical meetings are much less reliant on compatible technology or a good and consistent internet connection.
I’m reminded of a quote by motivational speaker Paul McGee (The SUMO Guy) who has said;
“In a time of iphone and ipads, we should remember the power of the eyeball.”
This I completely endorse. The reality is that as humans we all react to non-verbal signals and body language in our daily interactions and meetings, and these are often not as apparent during a phone or video call. It’s also worth highlighting that it is very much easier to hold your audience’s attention when they are physically present in the same location, and don’t have off-screen distractions to deal with too!
But for now video conferencing is really the only practical option that we all have available. I am sure that we are all looking forward to the day when we at least have the choice of whether to attend in person or not.
Please visit Howden’s new coronavirus hub for the latest information regarding COVID-19 & Employee Benefits provision.
Steve is Head of Benefits Strategy, Howden Employee Benefits & Wellbeing, and is an award-winning thought leader on Pensions, Employee Benefits, and Human Resources issues. He is occasionally accused of making Employee Benefits interesting.