How do you feel about flexible working? And how has the COVID-19 crisis impacted your idea of what flexible working really means?
The holy grail
Over recent decades, the idea of flexibility in working practices, be it having flexibility over working hours or working location, has grown dramatically in popularity. A 2019 study by Aviva found that a whopping 72% of employees wanted greater flexibility at work whilst almost a quarter of workers said they had quit jobs in order to find more flexible roles. It’s clear, then, that having some control over when and where we work has become a number one priority for many – it’s the holy grail of job perks and perhaps the solution to our perennial work-life balance struggles.
The Covid Crisis
Fast forward to the beginning of 2020 and the world is plunged into crisis. The Coronavirus pandemic has managed to close down cities, countries and whole industries in a way only previously seen during periods of international warfare. And like the First and Second World Wars, the pandemic has wrought huge changes for individuals, society and the workforce. With offices closed or operating COVID secure measures, and transport limited, millions of us have been working completely or partially from home. At last our dreams fulfilled! A huge step forwards towards finding that holy grail, right? Have you been jumping for joy at this new-found ‘flexibility’?
Working from home
Perhaps your new 30 second commute to the spare room initially appealed? 3 extra hours in the day when you’re not in the car or squashed up on public transport – think what you could do with that time – self care, family activities, household management, studying, reading, relaxing?! And the autonomy! Sure you’ve got to do your Zoom or Teams meetings at designated times, but other than that you can choose how best to work and allocate your own working hours. No one is checking that you’re at your desk. Indeed your desk can be anywhere and everywhere – the study the kitchen table, the garden…
Flexible or compulsory?
But hang on. We’re getting ahead of ourselves here. Although the COVID-19 crisis will probably bring about long term positive changes to the flexibility offered in working life, with much more home working, autonomy over hours and improved systems to make remote working more efficient, the reality of our current situation is far from ‘flexible’. With no ‘return to normal’ anywhere in sight, has this new apparent flexibility given you any real control? If remote working is compulsory it ceases to be flexible. If you have to work whilst simultaneously home-schooling children, your job is no longer flexible. So what does ‘flexible’ even mean during a global crisis? Does the concept cease to have any relevance at all?
The reality of working during a pandemic
In reality, even if you mostly like the new ‘being at home more’ work scenario, the current situation is fraught with problems. A JDP survey of 2000 people working at home during the pandemic revealed some interesting issues. 54% of respondents reported having more distractions when working at home, whilst 40% found it hard to focus. 66% of employees said they were more likely to work extra hours including nights and weekends when working from home, and 49% said they found it hard to keep proper boundaries between their work and home lives. 56% had not seen co-workers outside of work since the start of pandemic. It seems, then, even if you love the idea of the ‘flexibility’ of working from home – you’re pretty likely to be feeling pressurised, distracted by other responsibilities, working longer hours whilst feeling less productive, suffering a loss of structure, accountability and boundaries, and perhaps feeling isolated and less connected to your colleagues and others. You might even be missing your commute! The commute is a tangible mental and geographical boundary between home and work. A transition zone, a change of rhythm, your mental on and off switch. I certainly struggled when I left corporate law years ago and no longer had the commute as a signal that I’d reached the end of the working day. I’m used to it now, of course, but we shouldn’t underestimate the impact of suddenly stopping this routine.
The solution to these complex problems is to reframe the idea of flexibility. In such challenging times of uncertainty, where you face a loss of control and anxiety about the future, you need to flip the idea of flexible working on its head. It’s no longer the job that needs to be flexible, but YOU.
“A tree that is unbending is easily broken” – Lao Tzu, Chinese philosopher.
When facing uncertainty, it is your ability to be flexible, to adapt to changing situations – that enables you to regain some control. Easier said than done I know! Humans are creatures of habit – our brains like systems and routine, short-cuts and pattern. it makes it easier for us to function in a complex world. Most of us find change hard and unsettling. Perhaps you are actively resistant to change? Even though I am primed to be self-aware through my work training and my coaching of others, I realised during this crisis that I was resisting changing the way I worked. I had been used to working hard, long hours, non-stop, and being able to focus completely without any any distractions. I had to let go of this way of working – with four boys at home needing homeschooling and attention, and bringing my coaching practices online, it was bend or break! So I chose to adapt.
Here’s how to be more flexible
Learn to live with uncertainty.
Regularly check in on your thoughts. Notice when you are thinking ahead about ‘unknowables’ in the future and recognise when these thoughts are not serving you.
If thoughts about things that haven’t yet happened or might happen are making you anxious, make a point to focus on the moment. Intentionally bring your thoughts back to the present time and concentrate on what is happening/what you are doing right now.
Take one step at a time.
Think ahead only to the next thing. Don’t look towards a final outcome or a big future event, just take one small step at a time to move forward incrementally, avoiding decision-making paralysis or procrastination.
Review and Reset.
When situations change frequently and rapidly, you need to respond accordingly. Check in on new information every day. What is happening right now? Does the plan still work today? Where am I at this moment – do I need to alter my plans or do things differently because something has changed?
Have moveable boundaries.
The idea of having boundaries doesn’t sound very flexible, and as a corporate lawyer used to working long hours and all-nighters, you might find the idea somewhat alien! But when facing challenging situations like home-schooling while working, or being at home all the time working alongside a partner, some boundaries are necessary. The key is to be flexible with them. Be prepared to move them if need be. For example, you have a boundary to spend an hour of quality time with the kids. You planned to do it at 5 but need to finish a proposal. Keep the boundary – but move it. As long as you devote that hour to the kids – it doesn’t matter when it happens. Likewise – have a boundary to devote time to being present in your relationship. There is a huge difference between spending all day with someone and really being present. Make that a boundary, keep it, but move it if you need to to adapt to changing circumstances.
Think of it this way. The Covid crisis has moved your centre of gravity – it used to be your job and the office and now it is YOU. Without the usual plans, rules, routines and accountability to anchor you, you can go into free fall. Stop this from happening by centring yourself. Take ownership of the things you CAN control by being open-minded, present, and flexible. And if and when working life returns to some semblance of normality, take this new found strength and autonomy with you to the office. This crisis could turn out to be the making of all of us!
For more thoughts on the benefits of personal flexibility, tune into this week’s podcast. Contact me firstname.lastname@example.org if you would like more information about my Having it all coaching programme.