Putting meaningful work at the centre of lockdown learning: using hybrid and flexible work to sustain productivity and meet employees’ needs for work-life balance and sociability

5 February 2021

By Dr Jane Parry, Lecturer and Director of Research for HRM and Organisational Behaviour within Southampton Business School at the University of Southampton

In the early days of 2020, according to data from Understanding Society, just 2.7% of the UK’s population was working from home all of the time.  This had shown little evidence of shifting over time, although a larger proportion – one in three people – worked remotely for at least some of the time.

This all changed when the first lockdown ushered in the kind of accidental workplace experiment that few social scientists could have envisaged, albeit an imperfect one.  Enforced working from home for formerly office-based jobs, with little warning or training, was very distinct from chosen and scheduled working from home.  Furthermore, the closure of schools meant that, far from offering a valued productive space away from office distractions, working from home was now complicated for many by children’s and partners’ simultaneous demands upon time, workspace, and IT infrastructure.  By May 2020, a third of the UK workforce was working exclusively from home, a figure that rose to over half in many sectors (Understanding Society, 2020).

We designed our UKRI/ESRC-funded project in direct response to the need to understand how organisations and workforces were responding to this once-in-a-lifetime challenge.  Convening a team of researchers with expertise in work design, occupational health, work-life balance, and workplace inequalities, we devised the Work After Lockdown project.  This mixed-method longitudinal project is designed to capture the rapid process of change playing out day-by-day in the UK’s workplaces.  We have been examining how organisations have adapted to a new operating model and are learning from this, as well as how managers and teams are coping, and how this shared experience is shaping future working preferences, practices, and business continuity.

We focused on local government and law firms, and aligning to this, in our national-level data, on the Professional, Scientific and Technical (PST) and Public Administration and Defence (PAD) sectors: industries that together represented 1 in 7 of all UK jobs. PST roles contained a high percentage of white-collar jobs which could feasibly be performed remotely while PAD roles, including a high proportion of key worker jobs, presented a more complicated challenge for managers.  We thus anticipated that our research findings would have a high level of applicability for a wider range of organisations.

The Work After Lockdown project has now completed its first phase of fieldwork, which related to the period of most rapid response around workforce practice to the lockdown.  Some strong findings are emerging, which we will revisit when we return to our interviewees and survey respondents later this year to explore how challenges have been managed, what has changed, and how the fluctuating national context of lockdown cycles is affecting experiences.

In as much as we can quantify productivity – measurements have always been variable – organisations have not seen the productivity hit that might have been expected in transposing their operations into people’s homes.  Contrary to sceptical managers’ expectations, and defying the challenges faced by so many in combining work and home circumstances, an impressive 88% of our survey respondents felt that they were getting at least as much done working from home as they had in the office, a finding that mirrors other research findings.  However, this apparent success masks a more varied set of outcomes.  Our respondents scored an average 47/100 on the WHO-5 global well-being index, which is significantly below average, even given the extraordinary circumstances of the pandemic.  A compounding factor here was intensified working patterns that our qualitative research uncovered during lockdown, raising the risks of employee burnout.  Employees had invested exceptional efforts in ensuring that their organisations got through the crisis, no doubt also motivated in this by labour market uncertainties.  A particular area of concern raised by the research was line managers, who have taken on the complex tasks of absorbing knowledge around and supporting teams’ diverse and fluctuating circumstances with no reallocation of their previous workload and little evidence of their being offered training about the challenges of managing remote workforces.

Another key finding has been the social deficit that has accompanied exclusive working from home, with employees missing informal interactions, and finding them more challenging to replicate remotely.  Informal exchanges are important both in building connections within teams and organisations, and in project creativity and workforce learning.  While competence around digital communications has accelerated rapidly under lockdown, and teams often cited them as underpinning a new sense of collegial empathy, so far they have yet to provide an adequate substitute for the interactions that enrich working lives.  In part, it was this felt loss of social contact, and its implications for workspace that drove a clear demand among 73% of our research subjects for hybrid working – that is, for more working from home than they had previously been permitted, but combined with time in the office, co-ordinated with teammates.  This would blend the productivity and work-life balance benefits of working from home with the valued communal elements of the workplace.

The research provides strong evidence of the role that flexible work could play in the next phase of organisations’ engagement with work after lockdown, enabling them to build on the learning and positive outcomes of this period, designing bespoke working patterns that maximise working from home gains without sacrificing workforce well-being and organisational connectedness.  For years, flexible working has stalled as a widespread work practice, blocked by managers who preferred to coordinate their teams using tried-and-tested methods, privileging a 9-5, workplace-based operational model. However, the mood has now shifted, with organisations having ample evidence that the majority of office-based jobs can be performed differently, and with the CIPD recently launching a campaign to make flexible working a right from the start of employees’ contracts.

For social scientists and managers, the continued meaningfulness of the social relations of work is a fascinating and important outcome of the accidental experiment.  For organisations, this aspect of workforce motivation can be harnessed and better factored into job design as work practices inevitably change.  The learning of the past year has the potential to accelerate change and stimulate the kinds of discussions that had been elusive pre-pandemic, such as around more innovative workplace inclusion.  We now have a unique opportunity to build towards the ‘good work’ that Taylor advocated in his 2017 review of modern working practices, with human resource management offering valuable tools to consolidate the lessons about meaningful work with organisations’ concerns to align these to maintain workforce engagement and productivity.

Acknowledgement: This research is funded by Economic and Social Research Council under the UKRI COVID-19 rapid response research call.  Project title:  How is the COVID-19 accidental experiment around working from home changing the way the UK will work after lockdown? Grant reference: ES/V009648/1.  The project’s first report can be downloaded from the project website.

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Dr Jane Parry is a Lecturer and the Director of Research for HRM and Organisational Behaviour within Southampton Business School at the University of Southampton. She is also the Principle Investigator on the Work after Lockdown Project, which is a partnership between the Department of Organisational Behaviour and HRM at Southampton Business School, The Institute for Employment Studies, and Half the Sky. She has been working in applied policy research for the past 20 years, and has particular interests in inequalities, changing workplaces, the interconnections between paid and unpaid work, and digitised work.  She has recently completed a project on policy internships and subsequent careers as a Parliamentary Academic Fellow. You can follow her on Twitter @JaneMParry.

The perspectives expressed in these commentary pieces represent the independent views of the authors, and as such they do not represent the views of the Academy or its Campaign for Social Science.

This article may be republished provided you place the following statement and link at the top of the article: This article was originally commissioned and published by the Campaign for Social Science as part of its COVID-19 programme.