COVID-19 saw the acceleration and raised the profile of, flexible working, as employers had to adjust and adapt to their employees working from home (WFH) during the pandemic. Prior to COVID-19, since 2014, many workers (the majority of whom were working mothers) had requested the right to work flexibly under existing employment legislation (Employment Rights Act 1996 as amended by the Flexible Working Regulations). However, these applications had often been refused by a reluctant employer, for the most common reason given: that such working patterns would damage business interests and profits. While undoubtedly WFH has created tensions within a working household over the domestic and childcare duties that remain, employers have been shown that it can work, employees can be trusted to work remotely and should now see WFH as an opportunity whose benefits could be lasting if properly harnessed, post-COVID. Indeed, a commentator might wryly remark that it is in their commercial interests to do so, as WFH has seen some large employers slash their expensive overheads (city property rents, services, staff catering) and witnessed worker productivity improve as individuals save time on commuting and are more likely to work longer hours from home. As we emerge from the shroud of COVID-19 and consider the way we are to work in the future, we must ensure that such planning is done in as gender-neutral fashion as possible. While flexible working may be embraced more warmly now by employers, envisaging employees working partly from home and coming into “office hubs” for critical meetings, these places must not become the preserve of men or “men’s dens” leading to what the Fawcett Society has called a “two tier” workforce. Men as much as women, should be encouraged to remain working flexibly, senior management show by example and gender audits help to verify.
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