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UNITED KINGDOM : Changing work patterns


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Working, or rather being in gainful employment from home has been a ubiquitous practice for some time, enabled by technology. However, in scope and pervasiveness, there has been an unparalleled shift to non-office based or remote working, coinciding with the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic. Many industries, tourism and hospitality, to name a few, as well as the airlines have suffered huge detriments, with quite a few having folded, while others have remained viable or even prospered owing to the facilities accorded to staff to continue their work operations from the comfort and safety of their homes. In certain cases, a mixed mode of office and homeworking in various acceptable permutations, has evolved.

Throughout, employers’ duty of care to their staff, the tenets of good work practices, valuable work and enlightened employee relations, have remained paramount.

There have been undoubted benefits to working from home, such as not having to commute or keeping this to the minimum, saving time and money, and greater safety to self and to others. Correspondingly, there have been reduced running costs for businesses.

But making home or remote working viable and productive, crucial preconditions needed to be in place, such as the appropriate technologies, secure storage of data and information, and ongoing support from the base or centre. There are inevitable drawbacks, in the difficulty of separating work from private life and personal space, in the lack of physical proximity to team members and thus the absence of collegial camaraderie, an important ingredient of on-site work experience. To mitigate the negative effects, excellent corporate leadership, though from the background, can make all the difference to maintaining morale and quality of work life, as well as continued high performance. How workers are treated either when furloughed or temporarily laid off, not just during a pandemic, but also in other instances of business crises, can affect long-term loyalty, goodwill, corporate image and standing, and the bouncing back process.

The move to technology-based, digital platforms of work, can open a Pandora’s box of business opportunities and prospects, across sectors and borders, by fostering innovation, value-creation and keen, open competition in finding the practical applications of new ideas, reducing unnecessary locational displacements, and thus indirectly, by reducing carbon footprints, contributing to a cleaner environment.

However, the scaling-up and embedding of digital technology platforms in work ecosystems on an enduring basis, will not only necessitate increasingly complex and sophisticated ICT and IETS, but considerable upskilling and reskilling of the workforce on many levels. Automating back-office operations will free personnel to focus more on front-office activities and greater customer contact and interaction. AI (Artificial Intelligence) needs to go hand in hand with HI (Human Intelligence, in all its facets). In a scenario of behind-the-scenes and individualised, dispersed employment, the important factors to consider revolve around issues of collective representation and the protection and enhancement of employment rights, benefits and of inclusion, for the access to the latest and best remote working systems can remain the preserve of a limited number of people.

Workplace disruptions occasioned by the pandemic have presented opportunities as well as risks and threats. Those who have found in homeworking or in the hybrid variant, a welcome new modus operandi, with the obvious benefits of flexibility, now with the Covid restrictions being largely lifted, the return to full office or onsite working hours can be daunting for some and would take some getting used to, with all the readjustments and realignments of personal life and conventional work patterns. Preparation and a carefully planned and supported return would be vital.

But what about those who have grown dependent on working from home, having experienced the needed fulfillment in balancing work and family responsibilities? Would they be given the option of continuing this new way of working or of arriving at and agreeing an acceptable compromise between part home and part office working?

With the government advocating a general return to the workplace, there is resistance from some quarters, calling for flexible working (home and office) to continue and to become a contractual arrangement from the outset, and bar certain circumstances, be part of the recruitment process. This is being currently proposed in the form of a bill by a UK Member of Parliament (source: People Management, July/August 2021).

Hence, there have been unforeseen and remarkable developments in the world of work, with foresight skills and ingenious ways of adapting, becoming ever more critical.

London July 2021.

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