COVID-19 continues to ravage economies around the world but the curve has certainly flattened in many areas that were once hotspots. Many countries – including Canada – are slowly easing shut-down restrictions and employers of all sizes are being forced to ponder what the future of work will look like, including remote work policies. Companies that had only tested the waters with remote work practices in the past had to put such policies in place during the pandemic to support work-from-home employees. But this incredible challenge can be turned into an opportunity, too. Making flexible work options more permanent today would lead to a more agile and inclusive workforce in the post-pandemic world.
Whether it’s a worldwide pandemic or natural disasters caused by the warming of our planet, there are many reasons for employers to evaluate their policies on flexible work (and to introduce one if they have not already). Flexible work options could include a wide range of policies and practices, but two common forms are telecommuting, which enables employees to work outside of the traditional office space, and schedule flexibility, which adjusts conventional working hours to accommodate family responsibilities or personal time. These types of workplace flexibility have the potential to be more than crisis response tools – they can benefit individuals as well as organizations as a whole, and contribute substantially to broader economic and social inclusion.
Benefits to employees
Let’s start with the benefits for the individual employee. The case during the pandemic has been clear – telecommuting helped limit the spread of the virus through less personal contact, and provided the much-needed flexibility to avoid any risks if symptoms arise. But in the case of the post-pandemic world, having flexible working hours, with regular opportunities to telecommute, is a big help to families with children – especially those who may lack access to childcare services. This is especially true for women, and newcomer women in particular, who often face a disproportionate share of childcare duties. Even for those without family commitments, flexible work practices help create a better work-life balance.
Benefits to organizations
For organizations, COVID-19 is a risk to business continuity, and this risk would have been higher if they did not provide leeway to their employees to limit contact with others if necessary. Employers with existing telecommuting policies were in a better position to respond to the increasing emergency measures and travel restrictions of a pandemic, which have been changing on a day-to-day basis. But even after the pandemic is over, there’s a strong business case for maintaining some form of flexible working arrangements. These practices have been proven to drive a more engaged and committed workforce, which in turn delivers better results. Research debunks the misconception that employees are not as productive outside of the office setting – and the case for flexibility for employers is well-documented.
Employers may doubt the impact of such a policy change beyond the current crisis. If this is the case, they may try implementing a small-scale pilot with a group of employees and monitor the effects. The performance results and feedback received from employees will provide the evidence that they seek.
Benefits to society
For the broader economy and society, the immediate benefit of flexible working has been undoubtedly containing the spread of COVID-19 and safeguarding those who are immunocompromised. But in the longer term, flexible work options are an effective way for everyone to participate in the economy – especially underrepresented groups in the labour market. The beneficiaries range from single parents to those caring for elderly family members, who might have limited employment prospects without flexible work options.
Flexible work contributes to our mental well-being through better work-life balance, too, in the context of one in five Canadians facing mental health challenges. And there are environmental benefits, as telecommuting in particular means reducing our carbon footprint, which is one of the key drivers of climate change. In 2016, four in five employed Canadians used a private vehicle to commute to work, with only 6.9% walking or cycling.
A global pandemic is an unfortunate reality we have been facing. However, by adopting flexible work practices, employers can not only alleviate its contagious effects but contribute to a more inclusive, productive and healthier society in the long term.
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