Agile working: considering the unintended consequences

With most employers reporting positive results from the widespread adoption of agile working during the coronavirus pandemic, attention is now shifting to how working practices might change longer term and what employers need to do to adapt.

Trowers & Hamlins recently polled over 160 businesses, in conjunction with LinkedIn and Schroders, and found 78% anticipate their staff working from home more often, with 16% expecting at least half of their staff to work from home full-time. Only 5% had no plans to roll out a home working package to introduce more agility in the medium to long term.

Schroders is just one of a number of businesses, including Twitter, that have already announced they will make home working more permanent. But while the positives of such a transition may be obvious – in terms of happier teams, greater efficiency, savings on office space and faster decision-making – companies making such a wholesale change to how they work will need to be mindful of unintended consequences.

Emma Burrows, partner and head of employment at Trowers, says: “Almost overnight we have witnessed a huge increase in flexibility, and now we are seeing a change from that being a crisis response to a new normal. Attention is turning to the unintended consequences – like how much property will companies need, what will be the office of the future, how do we manage performance based on outputs rather than inputs and what sorts of expenses are employers prepared to pay. These are all big questions playing on the minds of business leaders.”

Janine Chamberlain, director of talent solutions at LinkedIn, says: “Businesses need to ensure agile working policies work for everyone. Some workers, particularly younger generations, get a lot of value from being in offices for job learning and the social benefits of work. Some prefer the clear work/life boundaries that the office enables, particularly as UK workers say they are clocking up an extra 28 hours a month working from home.”

Business culture

One obvious consequence of remote working is the impact it has on corporate culture. With teams no longer getting together physically, it is hard to develop and sustain critical business relationships, to really get to know colleagues, and to embed the behaviours and ways of doing things that make a company unique.

Further challenges arise because people do not have the opportunity for casual catch-ups, the so-called water cooler conversations, to share insights or bounce around new ideas.

Then there is training and development, where junior employees gain great benefit from simply being around their senior mentors to learn how things are done. 

The answer lies in flexibility, argues Emma Holden, global head of HR at Schroders, with parts of the job being done at home alone and others requiring time in the office with colleagues. “We have always been clear that coming together is really important too,” she says. “We used to leave the office to build teams, but now we come into the office to do that. This is about making sure we have a culture of innovation and collaboration, because that is so important to who we are as a business.” 
The health and wellbeing of staff must also be a priority, which requires managers to spend time on regular check-ins with team members. “As an employer, you have a duty of care to your employees, whether they are at home, in the office or in Starbucks,” says Burrows.

Diversity and inclusion
Agile working has many benefits for diversity and inclusion, including the way in which it allows broader access to the workforce for those with caring responsibilities who might not be able to work in an office nine-to-five. By allowing employers to stretch their recruitment net much wider, with a talent pool no longer limited to a 20-mile radius of the office, it also means a wider range of individuals can apply for any role.

But there are those that find it difficult to work from home, such as those with young children at home, or those in flatshares or poor internet connection. According to Chamberlain, LinkedIn data shows fewer women were hired into new roles during the pandemic than men, which might suggest employers were put off hiring women because they were concerned about their home responsibilities, or that women are leaving the workforce because of the challenges of juggling home and work.

When meetings are held via videoconference and organised without people present, there is a risk that those with a tendency to be overlooked become even more ostracised. That makes it more important than ever to have processes in place that ensure fair and equitable decisions on everything from who attends meetings to who is invited to join project teams, apply for promotions or participate in training.

Legal considerations
Shifting the working style of an organisation throws up a wide range of legal issues, on everything from the expenses employers are prepared to pay – if people choose to work remotely from far-flung places, or need a better desk and better Wifi – to how salaries might vary around the country if there is no longer a need to be physically close to London, for example.

Burrows says a good starting point is a new agile working policy, something many businesses are currently looking at. “A lot of these decisions are being taken on the back of property decisions at the moment,” she says. “Companies are looking at their property footprint, realising they need to reduce it, and that is leading to a discussion about what agile working will actually mean longer term. Lots of corporate clients are revisiting entire business models.”

As part of that process, an Equality Impact Assessment should be done to make sure constituencies are not unfairly impacted. Then employer health and safety responsibilities must be considered. John Turnbull, employment partner at Trowers, says: “Anonymous workplace surveys are a good way of starting a fact-gathering exercise to understand the working environments that people are operating in. If agile working is going to increase exponentially, health and safety assessments of staff arrangements have to take place and that is a Board-level issue.”

Transport is an area that now needs consideration. Nicola Ihnatowitz, another Trowers employment partner, explains: “As well as thinking about whether people are safe at work or at home, you also have to think about travel arrangements if you are requiring people to come into city centres, for example. You might have to cover the expense of taxis for vulnerable or anxious staff who do not wish to use public transport.”

Finally, no business leader can overlook the cybersecurity and data protection implications of remote working. Now is the time to renew staff training on these issues, as employees at home tend to take less care with the information crossing their desks and there is inevitably less control of systems. 
Turnbull concludes: “We are seeing a lot of cybercriminals taking advantage of this in a lot of industries, so businesses need to react to that.”
Agile working may be here to stay, but careful thought still needs to be given to its implementation. 


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