UK should seize pandemic ‘opportunity’ to work more flexibly, says review chief

LONDON — The coronavirus pandemic has offered a “generational opportunity” to work more flexibly, according to the chair of a review into the issue for the U.K. government.

Peter Cheese said the coronavirus was “absolutely fueling” the idea that flexible working “can and should be seen as just as much an acceptable way of working as a more standard five-day working week.”

His comments, in an interview with POLITICO, come as Cheese’s “flexible working task force” weighs the legal ramifications of employment in the post-pandemic era.

The coronavirus forced an overnight revolution in working practices, with staff sent home and having to dial into meetings via video conferencing — leaving many city centers empty of the usual professionals. It has prompted a new focus on how staff balance their work and private lives, and there have been calls to maintain some aspects of remote working, part-time work and job sharing, as well as an insistence that people who must attend a workplace do not lose out.

“These different forms of working should be seen as part of the norm,” said Cheese — arguing the U.K. should “move away” from the simple nine-to-five culture. “There are a variety of mechanisms by which you can support people in these more flexible ways of working, which can be helpful in terms of inclusion and wellbeing and balance of life.”

Cheese, chief executive of industry group the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD), criticized the “mixed messaging” from ministers over whether people should return to workplaces or continue at home once the pandemic subsides.

Towards the end of the first wave in Britain, there was briefing from within government that people would be forced back to offices. That never happened because a second wave of the virus prevented the easing of restrictions. But now the U.K. government is expected to take a more nuanced approach and leave decisions up to businesses, something Cheese believes is the right move both as Britain emerges from the pandemic and beyond it.

“I don’t think this is about the government, at any level, getting involved in what practices businesses should be employing or how they should think about recruitment or whatever,” he said. “Those are things for businesses to resolve.” He added that a discussion solely about working from home risks polarizing the debate, when improving the working situation for the most people involves multiple factors like more flexible hours.

Cheese said his task force is not expected to suggest changing contracts or other employment terms in its ongoing review of the legal landscape for flexible working, which is expected soon. And while he refused to be drawn on what the task force might recommend in a second planned review about increasing flexible working, he sounded hopeful when pressed on whether the U.K. could be moving towards a four-day week culture.

“I don’t think we’re at that point,” he said. “But, who knows? I think if we can really make some of these things work for us, if we can really make technology enable [a] better balance of work, and all those other things help us all, then maybe we will see more of those sorts of things being adopted.”

He added: “If I said something was going to change, maybe […] what we refer to as the standard five-day working week — that’s what will begin to change. And it could emerge in lots of different forms, one of which could be a four-day working week.”

But Cheese said any such change would come from “emergent practice” rather than law: “In other words, organizations starting to do things like that, rather than government edicts.”

The Conservative manifesto pledged to “encourage flexible working and consult on making it the default unless employers have good reasons not to.” The CIPD is among the organizations to recommend staff get the right to flexible working options from their start date, instead of after 26 weeks service, which is the current rule.

Overall, Cheese argued, considerations about the future of work will be about creating a balance between individuals and their employers and encouraging firms to trust people more on their output rather than their input. But the rethink prompted by the pandemic is here to stay, and Cheese predicts the pandemic will be a “catalyst” for flexible working “being seen as a norm and not an exception.”



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