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Flexible vs remote working: why understanding the difference between the two is so important

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The shift towards remote working is just one step towards the flexible working “revolution” campaigners have been calling for for years – but we can’t fall into the trap of assuming they’re the same thing.

Although the majority of us probably didn’t have ‘adapt to a whole new way of working’ on our to-do lists for 2020, the coronavirus pandemic has forced all of us to change our approach.

Gone are the days when our 9-5 was dominated by office chat and rounds of tea – in 2020, a combination of makeshift desks, daily Zoom calls and endless emails has become our ‘new normal’.

While, for some, this shift towards working from home has been a welcome one, others haven’t found the transition away from the office quite so easy. What was initially believed to be a move which would allow us all to forge a better work/life balance, spend more time with family and lead to better mental health overall quickly proved itself to be less than ideal; not only are many of us now working longer hours than ever before, we’re also experiencing increased rates of burnout, stress and loneliness. 

Of course, the emotional impact of the pandemic had a role to play in this. But besides that, what went so wrong? 

According to Mother Pukka founder and flexible working campaigner Anna Whitehouse, the answer lies in the way we define our current arrangement. Indeed, while the need to work from home has forced employers to give their employees more control over where they complete their work, the current arrangement is far from the flexible working ‘revolution’ campaigners have dreamed of for years, wherein workers are given the agency to manage their work in order to accommodate other aspects of their lives.

“Enforced remote working – which is what we’re currently doing in the pandemic – is very different to flexible working,” Whitehouse tells Stylist. “Working from home is only one strand of flexible working. You can have core hours, you can have compressed hours, you can have work from home and you can have work away, but it’s still not flexible working – the definition of flexible working is for people to be able to work anywhere and everywhere, and they’re in control of it, not the employer.”

A woman working from home
Flexible vs remote working: “Enforced remote working – which is what we’re currently doing in the pandemic – is very different to flexible working.”

According to Whitehouse, whose flexible working campaign, Flex Appeal, recently published a report called Forever Flex: Making Flexible Working Work Beyond A Crisis looking into how companies can make flexible working a reality as we move out of the pandemic, failing to differentiate between the current state of “forced remote working” and flexible working has the potential to exacerbate many of the problems we’re currently seeing.

“We aren’t working from home, we’re in our homes working in the context of a pandemic,” Whitehouse argues. 

“Suddenly companies are like ‘great, everyone’s working from home, we are flexible working employees, we’re family-friendly’ but that’s not the case. In fact, employees are burnt out because they’re on 24/7 competing against each other to be most present. 

She continues: “Whether you’re in an office or whether you’re online, there’s still this competitive bum sitting – competing to be strapped to our desks for the longest hours, regardless of whether that’s good for productivity.”

While celebrating the normalisation of working from home isn’t a bad thing, it’s important that employers don’t get ahead of themselves, Whitehouse says. 

Working from home may have allowed us to reap some of the benefits of flexible working, but our reliance on the structure of our office lives means we’re missing out on many of the other potential benefits, including making work more inclusive and accessible for disabled people and those with care responsibilities.

“Flexible working isn’t just about letting a few people work in a different way, this is about companies becoming diverse and inclusive employers,” Whitehouse explains. 

A woman working from home
If your posture is off during the working day, you’re going to end up with aches and pains that are hard to shake off.

“Many companies just think flexible working is a simple change to the way people work, but it means more than that – you’re allowing those with disabilities to work, you’re allowing those with caring responsibilities to work, and you’re allowing humans who just want to live and work to work.

“It’s a huge shift – and it’s a systemic change that needs to happen.”

With news of a potential vaccine leaving many of us dreaming about life after the coronavirus pandemic, there’s never been a better time to consider the kind of working arrangements we want to see in our ‘new normal’. There’s no doubt that the arrangement we had before wasn’t working – our ‘always on’ culture was fuelling a burnout epidemic – but working from home isn’t necessarily what we all want, either.

With this in mind, could flexible working – with the freedom to work both from home and in the office – offer the best of both worlds? And if so, how can we start this conversation with employers?

“I think now is a great time to talk to your employer about flexible working, because I think companies are hungry to know how to work remotely and flexibly properly,” Whitehouse says.

“One really tangible thing you can do is to look up the Equality and Human Rights Commission’s Working Forward Pledge, which lots of big names have signed up to, and forward that to your human resources team. I think when companies see other companies signing to say that they believe in something wholeheartedly, that’s really powerful. So I think that pledge is a really good starting point.” 

In terms of talking to people in the workplace about the potential for flexible working, Whitehouse says to start by not assuming that your manager or employer are automatically against the idea. Instead, she explains, it’s important to enter the conversation in a constructive way by providing ideas and suggestions.

“Hold the hands of your employer – you don’t have to see them as your enemy, they’re probably struggling as much as everyone else to try and navigate this new landscape,” Whitehouse suggests. 

“You can be part of the change – don’t think it’s just down to activists, the Equality and Human Rights Commission of the Government – you can individually start that conversation. Don’t underestimate the power of your own voice in this conversation.”

You can find out more about the Flex Appeal and check out their new report Forever Flex: Making Flexible Working Work Beyond A Crisis on the Mother Pukka website.

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Lauren Geall

As Stylist’s digital writer, Lauren Geall writes on topics including mental health, wellbeing and women’s issues. She’s also a big fan of houseplants and likes to dabble in film and TV from time-to-time. You can find her on Twitter at @laurenjanegeall.