Until recently, most organisations ruled out significant remote working on the assumption that without the watchful eyes of their colleagues and managers, workers would be less productive. For many organisations, collaboration was also thought to be functionally impossible within a distributed team. However, the global pandemic has challenged this and had a huge impact on the world of work. Some have had to make significant changes to their lifestyles to continue working safely, while others have been unable to do so, resulting in being furloughed or losing jobs entirely.
For those of us in academic and research jobs, it has been easier in some ways to continue working thanks to the technology available, but the expectations we (and our senior managers) have of what work looks like have had to change.
How the pandemic has changed our working life
A lot has been said about what we miss from one year ago, and what we wish to go back to. We believe we should try making the most out of this challenging time, and where possible, to use it as a learning opportunity for moving forward in a more inclusive manner.
Working from home has presented some challenges, but it has also brought a number of positive changes, some of which were unexpected. For instance: collaborations for Research Software Engineers (RSEs) have been easier, there have been more opportunities for meetings with researchers at different organisations, and the working environment is more zoom-friendly than the typical open plan office.
This massive online relocation of work, conferences and events has opened up a huge number of opportunities and the possibility to build new relationships, especially for those of us that would struggle the most with attending in person. This has allowed RSEs to participate more widely in events, such as those with caring responsibilities, accessibility needs, working in different countries or institutions, funding barriers, and other travel limitations. On top of the inclusivity considerations, employees have also been valuing the environmental benefits of lowering their carbon footprint, from less commuting and research travel.
Moving forward into a post-pandemic work life
As COVID-19 vaccinations are deployed globally, employers need to consider carefully and plan what working life will be like after the pandemic. How should we transition employees back into the office, if at all? Should work stay mostly remote? Will vaccination be required for the office?
It is useful for employees to have the different types of roles within their organisation defined, such as roles that: (i) need to be onsite at all times; (ii) need to be onsite for some tasks, but not others; (iii) can be performed fully remotely. It will be essential to make sure this is done fairly, and the concerns of employees are listened to.
Our experience is that some organisations have a tendency to look for a “one approach fits all”, whereas other organisations are looking to be flexible and support a range of ratios of remote working for different teams and/or different people. Throughout all this, it is important to understand that employers have a duty of care to support staff in this transition, and that mental health should be cared for.
Organisations seem to be providing flexibility on a case by case or informal basis, leaving the situation precarious. Therefore in the future, this lack of clarity needs more formalised contractual requirements about how much time is required in the office, and whether full remote working is an option. This will be important if staff are seeking to change their lifestyle based on remote working, such as moving out of an urban area or making arrangements for childcare.
Key considerations for employers and managers
Employees are not all the same - you have a diverse workforce that have all had different experiences in the pandemic and will have different requirements going forward. You need to think inclusively about all of these different requirements to continue working effectively.
Ask your employees what would work best for them and take this into consideration in any policies you make going forward.
Formalise flexible working - write flexible working into contracts so that it is formalised and your employees can choose how they work best, and know what is expected.
Enable flexible working - your workforce needs to be able to work flexibly so you need to consider how this will work in reality. Having meetings with some people at home and some in the office means that the majority of meetings will happen online, so is your office space suited to this? You may have to rethink the open plan office space, or provide suitable spaces for online calls.
Give employees time to make the transition back to the office (if this is what they want) - there is still considerable uncertainty over the pandemic and not all employees have received their vaccine, therefore confidence in returning to a workplace may still not be there for some people.
Consider if there are employees that will need extra support - many companies have taken on new staff during the pandemic who have never been into the workplace and have never met their work colleagues in person.
While it’s tempting to try and find a compromise in pursuit of a false idea of fairness, there’s a danger that the resulting system will either disproportionately benefit one group (likely those that already have the most privilege in society), or worse, work badly for everyone. It’s important to remind oneself that everyone is different, and the work they do varies just as much, and what benefits one person may actively harm another. To acknowledge and benefit from this diversity, we need to find an approach to work that is truly flexible and nuanced rather than one that simply splits the difference and calls that “flexible working”.