Managers are much more positive about their staff working from home and working flexibly since lockdown says a new study undertaken jointly by the Equal Parenting Project at the University of Birmingham and the Work Autonomy, Flexibility and Work-Life Balance at the University of Kent.
The report, entitled Managing Employees During the COVID-19 Pandemic: Flexible Working and the Future of Work, is based on a nationwide survey with managers who aimed to understand the organisational perspective on managing homeworking since the UK Covid-19 lockdown.
During the lockdown, many organisations have been forced to move the majority of their workforce to remote working, often at short notice. In many cases, these businesses had previously discouraged flexible working and had very little infrastructure in place to support these new ways of working.
The research team undertook a survey of managers between 24th July to 11th August 2020. The sample consisted of managers from across the UK, an array of industries and all levels of management. In total, 742 managers completed the survey, which involved questions about norms for working from home, attitudes towards homeworking, trust, key learning experiences, what tools the organisation supplied to employees to enable them to work from home, and what support was made available to the employees.
As the first piece of academic research to explore managerial experiences during the Covid-19 pandemic in the UK, this study discovered that 54.7 per cent of managers had at least 80 per cent of their employees working from home since lockdown.
As a result of their management experiences during the lockdown, fewer managers now believe that presenteeism and long working hours are essential to career progression within organisations. Many managers also reported that working from home increases productivity, concentration, and motivation owing to their experiences in lockdown. About 58.6 per cent of managers surveyed said that working from home increases productivity whereas only 44.1 per cent agreed with this statement before lockdown.
But managers also saw some drawbacks, with 58.7 per cent of all those surveyed saying that working from home led to isolation, and other citing issues around the blurring of boundaries as key negative outcomes. Regardless, most managers now believe that working from home will become much more commonplace in future, with more jobs, including senior roles, being advertised as being available for flexible working and more support being made available for homeworking.
Dr Holly Birkett, co-director of the Equal Parenting Project at the University of Birmingham, said: “The report shows managers are much more positive about working from home and flexible working than they were before the pandemic. Managers say their organisations are going to be more supportive of homeworking and flexible working in the future, including more likely to support working from home, job shares and part-time working even for senior roles.
"This change along with the breakdown of the presenteeism culture and the removal of a flexibility stigma, which existed before Covid-19, could help improve employee wellbeing, help to support people to take on caring roles and break down many of the barriers women face to balancing career and family, with the potential to improve female representation on boards and close the gender pay gap.”
Overall, the data included in the report has shown that working from home has been commonplace since the initial lockdown and managers have faced a steep learning curve regarding how to manage remote teams often with very little support or guidance.
Despite this, managers have been “pleasantly surprised about the results with their teams generally performing really well during this time”. Although there have been some performance issues these were generally noticeable before lockdown.
Dr Heejung Chung, principal investigator of the Work Autonomy, Flexibility and Work-Life Balance Project at the University of Kent, said: "As we have also seen in our previous employee survey, the flexible working genie is out of the bottle – more workers want to work flexibly in the future, and as this report has shown, managers now see how flexible working can benefit companies. However, that shift will not be the same for all companies and for all workers. Government policies to help make that cultural shift, by introducing stronger rights to flexible working and better protection against discrimination for flexible workers may help this transition go smoothly after the Covid-19 lockdown measures end.”
The full findings and wider recommendations of the report will be announced by Dr Sarah Forbes, Dr Holly Birkett and Dr Heejung Chung this week.