Flexible working – staff views

People Strategy Team
Friday 4 September 2020

The University undertook a People Strategy consultation and gathered feedback from over 1,000 staff and students through 1,000 completed surveys and 36 focus groups. Out of this consultation, the University has created a People Strategy Action Plan.

In this first blog about how the Action Plan is progressing, we will look at a common theme that emerged from the People Strategy – the desire for a more flexible approach to work, both in terms of location and working hours.

Flexibility on the wish list

The positives of working flexibly were emphasised throughout the People Strategy consultation. The ability to work flexibly was mentioned as a strong, supportive aspect of the working environment for many staff, with inflexibility highlighted as stress-inducing and as a factor that inhibited both task and career success.

Increased flexibility emerged as one of the key things people would change about their working environment if they could. Flexibility was also highlighted as one of the keys to achieving a ‘good work-life balance’ (the most frequently used words in response to the question ‘What does work-life balance mean to you?’ included ‘home’, ‘balance’, and ‘time’).

Word cloud with 'time', 'life', 'home', 'works', and 'balance' as the largest words
Most frequently used words in answer to: What does work-life balance mean to you?

Differences between groups emerged, with professional services staff indicating that they perceived they had less access to flexible working patterns than academic staff. Some wanted more opportunity to work from home and according to hours that supported their caring responsibilities. Others wanted more opportunities to work in University buildings outside of the ‘traditional 9 to 5’.

Flexibility’s double-edge

Staff also understood the double-edged nature of flexible working – they raised questions such as:

  • “On days where I want to work from home, does this mean I still have the right not to answer my phone or email for a work query during a designated lunch hour? What if it is an emergency?”
  • “If I want to continue working after normal office hours one day, perhaps to avoid working the following morning, is it bad practice to send emails to others whose working day might have finished at 5.30? Would this challenge other people’s work-life balance?”
  • “If my working hours are 10 to 6 and an urgent task comes in a 6.10, should I leave it until the next working day? What if it’s a Friday?”
  • “Why do people send urgent requests on a Friday??”

The complications that arose focused on people’s desire to understand how flexibility worked alongside their right to ‘switch off’ from work. For example, for many of you, being able to work from home was seen as increasing flexibility and improving the work-life balance. At the same time, bringing work into the home environment could also blur the delicate separation between work and the rest of life that many had carefully nurtured.

A range of actions was developed in response to this focus on flexibility in your feedback. These included:

  • embracing a range of flexible working models as a strength and opportunity and not an inconvenience or cost
  • ensuring professional service staff have access to the Flexible Working Policy
  • ensuring there was consistency across Schools and units regarding accessibility to flexible working arrangements
  • recommending that senior staff role model a work-life balance.

Careful what you wish for…

Fast forward to May 2020, and the majority of the University’s staff have experienced a crash course in working flexibly, working mainly from home, often with caring responsibilities onsite, as well as adjusting to the demands (and joys) of new technologies.

In another large-scale consultation exercise – ‘All staff survey on working in the context of Covid-19‘ – staff in lockdown sometimes reported juggling work alongside a range of challenges including social isolation, home schooling, intermittent wifi, ancient laptops and noisy neighbours. Some missed their traditional working hours, their University buildings and their colleagues. They reported feeling uncomfortable by the blurring of their home, work time and workspace:

“I live in a small flat and I work at my dining table (which is in my living room), so I don’t have a clear spatial differentiation between work and home, and this frustrates me.

“I feel that if I take a break from my desk, I may miss a call or message and that causes me some worry. In the workplace, if I am away getting a cup of coffee or something, that feels acceptable. At home, I feel guilty if I am away from my desk during the working day.

“The lines of communication are now so varied and constant. There seem to be no boundaries and people reach out, and expect responses, over a 14-hour period.

“I am working much more in the evening because of childcare commitments during the day, so have less time for relaxation and I am reluctant to send work-related emails outside normal office hours, to avoid giving the impression that I expect a reply. I have had to prioritise the most urgent tasks during normal working hours, and this means I have become less efficient than usual.

During lockdown even social life is via Teams/Skype, so I sit in the same place to have a work conversation and a personal conversation, again leading to no separation.”

Others described being able to focus better, achieving an improved work-life balance and feeling free from office politics:

“I am working so much more productively at home alone than I did in a noisy open-plan office at work.

“Working from home has proven very successful. I spend 2 hours a day commuting to and from work which seems unnecessary now.

“I honestly feel more productive and spend NO time getting to meetings or travelling to work or stressing over a parking space.

“It’s been really refreshing and liberating not to have to contend with office politics (i.e. tensions in the office).”

Lockdown silver linings

Despite the many challenges of our recent experience, looking at the general results from the survey the desire for greater access to flexible working re-emerged as a strong theme.

Word cloud with words 'work', 'home', 'working' as the largest
Most frequently used words in answer to: What positive changes would you like to see emerge as a result of your recent experience of work?

Staff who had experienced lockdown identified increased ‘flexible/remote working (location and time)’ as a key change they wanted to see going forwards:

  • 64% selected ‘agree’ or ‘somewhat agree’ when asked if they would like to have more flexibility in terms of working hours
  • 78% selected ‘agree’ or ‘somewhat agree’ when asked if they would like to have more flexibility in relation to working location.

The figures were broadly similar across those with and without caring responsibilities, with carers slightly more likely to agree they wanted more flexibility in relation to the times and spaces they worked within.

Flexibility in terms of working hours and location was described by many as ‘one silver lining of this situation’ that, if harnessed and well-supported (and child-care re-established) could become ‘entirely normal, regular working practice’:

“Once we go back to ‘normality’, continue to allow working from home, it’s shown that through technology, we can work from anywhere.

“Greater flexibility has enormously improved my work life balance and my work productivity.

“Having childcare working again post COVID would provide the perfect situation to allow more working from and a great work/life balance.

“Allow more flexible working – as long as the demands of the business have been met, we should be given greater flexibility. We can work among ourselves to implement flexibility and still provide cover.”

What are we doing?

The desire for greater flexibility was coupled with a wish, expressed by the majority, to see more guidance in relation to the ‘etiquette’ of working flexibly. A group of professional service and academic staff have been working on developing ‘flexiquette’ guidance to help people address some of the trickier issues around flexible working, including how and when to ‘switch off’, and how and where to draw the lines between work and the rest of life. We have drawn on the feedback from the People Strategy consultation, as well as the all-staff Covid-19 survey results, to inform our work and hope it is useful.

Flexiquette guidance

This is a developing tool, so please do get back to us if you want to or have any ideas for the flexiquette guidance: peoplestrat@st-andrews.ac.uk or join the conversation below.

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