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Is the Pandemic a Tipping Point for Flexible Work?

Is the Pandemic a Tipping Point for Flexible Work?


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One thing that the COVID-19 pandemic has shown is that work and home are intertwined. Work doesn’t stop just because someone has baseball practice, and school still has to happen even if someone has to work.

Work-life balance is a common buzzword. Ideally, workers can balance work and their personal life in a way that works best for their needs. They usually do this with a flexible job. However, as the lockdown has shown, work-life balance is not always easy to achieve due to a lack of flexible work options. Though the circumstances are extreme, the reality is that balance has always been difficult to accomplish due to the competing demands of work and life.

Given that the pandemic shines a light on work-life balance (among other things), will the lockdown change employers’ perspectives? Will workplace flexibility become standard when life returns to the new normal?

Work-Life Balance Before the Pandemic

Long before the pandemic, employees wanted flexible work. FlexJobs’ 2019 survey found that 30% of respondents left a job because it didn’t offer flexible work, and 16% were looking for a job that offered flexible work.

Though the reasons for wanting flexible work are varied (avoiding a long commute, office politics, owning a pet), many people want flexible work due to caregiving responsibilities.

As an example, one study found that almost half of the U.S. lacks adequate childcare options. For every one open childcare spot, there are three children that need it, making it difficult for working families to balance work responsibilities with family responsibilities.

And though the FlexJobs survey found that 80% of people would be more loyal to an employer that offered flexible hours, the opposite isn’t necessarily true. Research has shown that when employees ask for flexibility for family reasons, they are penalized. Those who “appeared” to have no family got ahead—even if they really did have a family.

Many employers expect employees to put their job first—especially if that employee wants to advance their career. In some cases, companies created incentives and perks that encouraged employees to work longer hours. Free gourmet food, onsite car care, and free dry cleaning are a few examples.

In other cases, employees were free to come and go from the job as they pleased, creating the “illusion” of work-life balance and flexibility. However, technology leaves many employees tethered to the office and expected to show their loyalty to their jobs—working even when they’re scheduled to use vacation time, or by not taking time off.

Work-Life Balance and Flexibility During Lockdown

The pandemic has merged home life and work life, making a separation between the two difficult. For the first time, many employees, coworkers, and employers are learning that family responsibilities—whatever they are—are not akin to a hobby. Familial duties are present all day every day, not just on nights and weekends.

Parents With Kids

People are also realizing that it takes a village to balance work and family. However, many parents no longer have that village. Daycares and schools are closed, forcing parents into the role of teacher, babysitter, and entertainer in addition to their job responsibilities.

One survey found that, right now, 60% of all childcare programs are closed. However, 51% of all families need childcare in order to work. Of those that need childcare, 63% say that finding adequate childcare is difficult, and 33% report that it is “very difficult” to find it. And only 22% of essential workers can use their current childcare providers.

Adults With Elderly Parents

However, parents are not the only ones with difficulties balancing work and family during the pandemic. Many adults with elderly relatives find themselves in a similar dilemma. Some families chose to remove their loved ones from nursing homes and other long-term care facilities.

Other families had their loved ones at home (with them or independently). Those families relied on home health aides to provide in-home care until they decided it was too dangerous to have the aide over or the aide had to stop working.

In either case, family members are now filling the role of home health aide, assisting their elderly family members. And in some cases, this means round-the-clock care to ensure their loved ones stay safe and healthy.

Employer Reactions

Though a FlexJobs survey of employers found that they are worried about their employees’ health and well-being while working at home during the pandemic, not all employers may be getting that message across to their staff.

Nord VPN, a virtual private network service provider, is tracking when users log in to work. Their data suggests that U.S. workers are working three hours more per day during the lockdown than before. But employees aren’t just working longer hours; they’re working whenever they can, too.

For example, the peak time to send email is now 9:00 a.m, compared to 10:00 a.m. before the pandemic. However, the data also shows a spike in use from midnight to 3:00 a.m. While there’s no way to know exactly what users are doing during those hours, given that many people report they cannot work regular hours during the day due to family responsibilities, people may be working during those hours.

Some employees admit that the extended work hours happen because they aren’t used to working from home and don’t know how to maintain boundaries. For example, because they are no longer commuting, some workers are taking advantage of the extra time and starting their workdays a little earlier.

However, some employees admit they feel pressured to prove that they are working and not using the lockdown as an excuse to slack off. With 30 million people currently unemployed due to furloughs and layoffs, employees don’t want to end up without a job.

Could the Pandemic Be the Flexible Work Tipping Point?

It’s still too soon to know what long-term effects the pandemic will have on businesses. However, early data provides some clues.

The National Association for the Education of Young Children surveyed 6,000 childcare providers in March. Of those, only 30% were confident that they could survive a closure for more than two weeks. Another 17% said they won’t survive any closure, and 25% weren’t sure they could reopen. This could lead to a loss of available childcare slots in the future if they aren’t given financial support in the present.

And because nursing homes are COVID-19 hot spots (with approximately one-fifth of all U.S. COVID-19 deaths linked to them), it is possible that many people will not send their loved ones back to these facilities.

While some companies reported an initial bump in employee productivity during lockdowns, maintaining these initial gains proved unrealistic considering the need to balance everything on top of an uncertain future.

For example, some companies reported productivity increases as employees spent less time in meetings and training in March. However, a survey of 1,001 employees found that by April, 45% of employees were feeling burned out—specifically blaming the challenge of balancing work and home life.

What Could Work Look Like?

Though some states are starting to reopen, allowing businesses to resume operations, social distancing measures remain in place in many cases. Employers may need to adopt flexible and alternative work arrangements to keep their employees safe and their company in business. The stats indicate that remote work may be the future.

As an example, one survey of employers found that right now, some of them are allowing staff with childcare obligations to drop from full-time work to part-time during the pandemic. And 54% of employers plan on allowing flexible work arrangements once the pandemic has passed.

However, to make flexible work successful for all employees, companies may also need to adopt new attitudes toward productivity and work-life balance to make the new rules of work work.

A study by Adobe found that many people spend six hours a day checking email, with nine out of 10 people checking their work email at home. Employers might start encouraging staff to turn off their email alerts when they are “off the clock.” And, to lead by example, supervisors may need to stop responding to (and sending) emails after hours.

Employers may also need to adjust how they evaluate employee productivity and performance. Instead of evaluating an employee by how many hours they log, no matter where they log them, employers could start (and probably should) evaluating employees by the quality of their work and the impact that their work has regardless of how or where it’s completed.

Lastly, employers should recognize that work-life balance is important for every employee, not just those with families. Every policy should extend equally and fairly to all employees that want to pursue work-life balance through flexible work.

What Happens Next?

No one knows what comes next with this pandemic. And though the future is uncertain, one thing is clear: the work world will need to adapt to the changes if they want to survive. While social distancing measures are an obvious example, flexible work will likely continue to play a role in the future of work.

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Photo credit: bigstockphoto.com

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Rachel Pelta is a Content Coordinator for FlexJobs. With professional experience in job placement and as a manager, she creates content to help people succeed in their job search, and to help managers get the best out of their staff.…Read More >

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