Tony Lysak, Founder and CEO, The Software Institute
The demand for flexible working has clearly gained momentum over the past year as the UK trialled the biggest working from home experiment in history, so it was only a matter of time until the government re-evaluated the way we work post-pandemic, introducing ‘The Flexible Working Bill’. The bill proposed by Tulip Siddiq, Shadow Children’s Minister and Labour MP for Hampstead and Kilburn, would grant workers the right to flexible work if voted in later this year. The bill has the potential to revolutionise the way we work moving forwards, with flexible working to become a ‘default option’ under new legislation.
But before hastily cementing a new working model, we must consider the long-term impacts the bill could have, particularly the threat it poses on continuous professional development of staff and advancing the chasm that is the skills gap.
Business leaders who are currently considering their own flexible initiatives must ask themselves whether the model the bill proposes allows them to provide staff with the support needed in terms of personal development and career progression, whilst balancing employees’ mental, physical, and emotional safety
For businesses who have struggled to adapt and overcome challenges over the past year and a half, the re-opening of the physical workplace in July 2021 came as a huge relief and they are keen to ensure a smooth but swift transition back to the office. However, others found huge benefits from the enforced separation, with employees citing flexible working to promote a better work life balance, productivity, and boost to mental health.
Whilst it’s clear that there are some obvious benefits to flexible working, the proposed bill presents far more risks when it comes to ensuring staff are well supported in their careers and are continuing to develop their industry knowledge.
Although flexible working is a good idea in theory, it does have its shortcomings in practice. There is a time and a place for solitary conditions, which often spark greater concentration. But the reality is, being in the physical workplace provides essential training, integration, and face-to-face interactions that remote working cannot compete with.
If we were to make flexible working a ‘default option’, we risk cliques forming, with people becoming culturally misaligned with the business’ core values. Without the constant leadership and mentoring that comes in the office, the fact is, leaders will be unable to direct staff towards the company’s goals and employees will find themselves headed in a different direction, creating friction and inefficiencies internally.
Remote working during the pandemic has already had significant impacts on the professional development of graduates right through to the people in their early careers. If flexible working does become the norm, we are likely to see professionals within the first five years of their careers suffer the most. This is because those in the early stages of their careers need continuous mentoring from senior leadership staff if they are to develop and build key skills.
The reduction of face-to-face contact with more experienced staff and leaders will see junior staff fail to learn through the natural process of osmosis which facilitates organic learning opportunities. With remote working, the casual conversation and collaboration that usually happens in the break room or by the water cooler unfortunately goes lost. Therefore, continuous professional development is undoubtedly threatened when junior staff members are unable to observe how senior leaders problem solve, communicate, and resolve conflict.
The pandemic has already seen vast digital transformation take place and with continued innovation widening the skills gap void, business leaders can’t risk losing their top talent to an unnatural churn rate. The Flexible Working Bill, in time, would sadly disconnect employees from their corporations, meaning that retaining and nurturing staff would prove increasingly challenging.
If the bill were to be voted in, companies would have to adopt agile techniques to ensure staff are developing and to prevent skills gaps forming in their organisations. For instance, using educational content on their internal platforms and ensuring daily touch points so that junior team members are consistently supported by senior staff, develop their industry knowledge and progress in their careers.
Importantly, before we consolidate flexible working, making it a ‘right for all’, we must acknowledge that working away from the office during the pandemic has already begun eroding skills and impacting vital industry understanding. The fact is, flexible working long-term risks adversely affecting the continuous professional development of employees and widening the skills gap even further.