Flex education: Why we need to adopt a new approach to post-pandemic working

Alex Brunner, Clockwise

By Alex Brunner, COO, ClockwiseOver the last year there has been no shortage of predictions about the post-pandemic future of work filling airwaves and thought pieces in the UK. The office was proclaimed dead: our work-from-home reality would become a permanent party of sourdough, home-schooling, and a work-life balance tipped firmly towards the latter. A winter locked inside soon changed the forecast.

By January, if the same talking heads were to be believed, we were all sick of bread, sick of the kids, and so unproductive we craved the ‘old’ normal.

By this point, it’s fair to say that the truth lies somewhere in the middle. Many companies have flip-flopped between working from home forever and demanding their staff return. Between closing their offices only to realise they needed them. Life isn’t so clear cut, so black and white. The word du jour is flexibility: in where we work, how we work, and how we achieve this.

Much of the need for flexibility rests upon employee needs. Our own research estimates that around a third of the workforce left urban centres for pastures more rural or suburban, taking the opportunity to leave the hustle and bustle for a quieter life while they could. Many will not return.

This has left companies with a workforce dispersed around the country, reluctant to travel unless necessary, and eager to remain in proximity to their new hinterland. Meanwhile, many of these same companies have given up old leases while the pandemic rages, grown used to a remote workforce, and require a new level of safety, comfort and care for their staff.

Flexibility then, is about more than just coming into the office two days a week. It requires a total recalibration of how we think about “work” as a concept. It seems most likely that at least in the medium term, these changes are here to stay, and in many cases, will be permanent.

With work-life balance firmly in hand, returning to the old commute, GBP6 sandwich, and cubicle arrangement feels like regression. Our survey found that around a quarter of people will change jobs if this is all that is on offer. So what does flexibility really look like?

It is worth noting that the surge in flexible and hybrid working started long before the pandemic. Like many of the now commonplace aspects of work life – from Zoom calls to direct to consumer commerce – Covid-19 accelerated, rather than created this trend.

Prior to the lockdown, we were already expanding our footprint across the UK, but since it began, what our clients seek has changed to reflect the situation. For example, our licenses typically operate on a monthly rolling contract, have no upfront costs, and deliver build and fit. This allows us to design spaces with collaboration in mind, but has also made it easier to cater to the needs of clients whose needs might change, or who require differing amounts of space in different locations due to newly-dispersed staff.

Likewise, the office space model has experienced a dramatic shift in the last few years with the convergence of flexible and traditional spaces in workspace design. The rise in start-up culture and entrepreneurial spirit has driven both old and new companies to seek more flexible and dynamic workspace solutions. Knowing what you will require and when you will require it can be difficult in the current climate. But one thing that has become clear is the need for community at work.

Locked down for a year, our survey found that around 30 per cent of UK workers miss the social element of work, while around the same find it hard to differentiate between their personal and working time when working from home. Almost three quarters of office workers (71.24 per cent) stated that a sense of community within the workplace leads to a more productive and enjoyable working environment.

But that is not to say that they require it every day, nor that everyone is the same. Some people are desperate for a workspace, others may only need it so often. But having the structure in place to accommodate the disparate needs of the post-pandemic workforce is paramount to the success of flexible working. A one size-fits-all approach feels increasingly redundant when everyone’s needs are so clearly different.

This notion is exemplified in the growth of regional hubs – especially in light of the government’s ‘levelling-up’ agenda. I’ve already noted the mini diaspora of staff around the country, but this regionality – this uptick of growth in provincial towns and cities – was already well underway. The need for a business to operate solely out of London is diminishing, as increased connectivity makes the world a far smaller place.

Having the flexibility to travel and work around the country in a location that suits your needs – be that family, commute time, or other work-related travel – empowers productivity through an agnostic approach to location. Being fixed to one place limits who you can hire, cutting off regional talent and knowledge for no good reason. The workforce is becoming increasingly decentralised, bolstering the towns and cities outside of London and boosting local economies with well-paid jobs and commerce.

Indeed, this flexibility goes beyond the workforce, right down to the agreements firms sign. With many landlords still reeling from unpaid rental arrears, companies are looking for flexible contracts that allow for movement in terms and pricing. Licenses need to reflect the fluid nature of the spaces which companies hire, allowing them to adapt if the business faces a downsize or difficult time.

Understanding that flexibility is not just a case of occasional home-working is a must for businesses seeking to adapt their working models. We’ve had a year in which everything has changed, and understanding what your business needs requires flexibility in and of itself. What is clear to us is that listening to your employees – learning their changing needs and adapting to them, ensuring your staff know their place can be anywhere, alleviating fears while providing a sense of community – will put your company on the right side of history in this post-pandemic world.

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