COVID-19 propels businesses to embrace flexible working

01 Apr 2020

The COVID-19 “lockdown” has abruptly transformed the global workforce. In the course of a few weeks, millions of workers all over the world have been forced to leave their work environment. People have transformed their homes into multipurpose spaces where professional duties, home and family lives are entangled. Flexible working has suddenly entered a whole new dimension. 

In this article, we take a look at the key role of diversity and inclusion (D&I) programs in talent management. We observe how COVID-19 has propelled businesses to embrace flexible working and sparked a sea change in cultural and societal attitudes towards it.

Diversity and inclusion programs are helping businesses prepare for the future

As the rapid advancement of technology accelerates business transformation, jobs are getting displaced and the World Economic Forum estimates creation 133 million new jobs between 2018–2022.

Consequently, employers are urgently looking to plug talent shortages and deploy strategic and innovative approaches to attract and retain talent. Strategic HR and talent management functions are taking proactive action, including implementing employee upskilling programs to embracing comprehensive diversity and inclusion (D&I) programs.

Over the past few years, we have witnessed a rising curve in D&I programs to tap into a diverse talent pool. Overall, there is a gender gap in global labour participation rates. Research by Catalyst shows that, in 2019, only 48% of women participated in the global workforce, compared with 75% of men. The gender gap is more pronounced amongst highly educated men and women. So addressing gender equality in the workplace is a key piece of the jigsaw for many organisations and particularly, those seeking to attract talent in STEM (science, technology, engineering, mathematics).

The other critical factor is to enhance LGBT+ (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transvestite and other sexual identities) talent. More countries are – or moving towards - recognising rights of the LGBT+ community (through legalising same-sex marriages and rights to equal treatment) and societal attitudes are changing to embrace the LGBT+ population. However, Stonewall’s employment equality index shows that when it comes to the workplace, trans people in particular are still facing challenges with being included and accepted at work.  

From our experience in working with companies in this area, we learn that unconscious bias trainings are helping to raise awareness of workplace biases such as gender and LGBT+ biases, especially when there is commitment from a leadership that walks the talk. 

Flexible working as a key lever for embracing D&I 

Another means of addressing the imbalance at this time is through leveraging flexible working – highly topical in its own right, due to COVID-19.

So what does flexible working mean?

The Cambridge dictionary defines flexible working as "a situation in which an employer allows people to choose the times that they work so that they can do other things, for example spend time with their children".

The Macmillan dictionary defines it as “ways of working that allow you to live your life in the way you want, for example working from home or working hours that are different from the usual 9 to 5 day”.

What underpins both definitions is the word allow – employers are allowing their employees to choose how they work, in a way that permits them to do other things that matter to them in their life.

Best-in-class employers allow employees to work flexibly working to promote work-life balance. A 2019 LinkedIn survey found that 72% of talent professionals identified work flexibility as a key HR and recruitment trend transforming the workplace. Indeed, the survey revealed a whopping 78% increase in the number of LinkedIn job posts mentioning work flexibility in the past four years.

Interestingly, nearly all of the best companies for LGBT+ workers listed in DiversityInc. offer employees the chance to work flexibly. A remote work environment helps mitigate the effects of workplace bias so that employees (especially those that are transitioning) can better focus on their work, be more productive and feel less stressed. Remote working should, of course, not be a panacea since organisations need to be proactively addressing unconscious bias at the same time. 

Recent evidence shows that flexible working is increasingly sought-after by employees. The International Workplace Group’s 2019 Workplace survey found that, faced with two similar job offers, 80% of candidates would favour a role offering flexible working over another which does not. The same survey confirmed that flexible working was helping increase diversity in the workplace. In the UK, law firms are being urged to reverse the drain of young and female talent by offering flexible working options. In fact, a 2019 survey of UK lawyers showed that 81% would actively look for flexible work options when deciding which law firm to join.

From the organisations’ perspective, flexible working options are also a smart way for an organisation to stand out from its competitors and attract talent. Employers have in recent years been moving towards promoting home and remote working arrangements. However, our interviews with hundreds of corporate executives in the past year often reveal a disparity between having a flexible working policy and being able to work remotely in a guilt-free manner. There is often a mismatch between what the company’s policy permits and what the line manager is encouraging (implicitly or explicitly). 

COVID-19 crisis is propelling flexible working to become the new working norm for the majority of office workers. Advancements in technology have facilitated remote working measures to meet changing work expectations and have become a gift in these challenging times when Zoom, Google Hangouts Meet and other software are enabling people to connect digitally at the touch of a key.

So what other benefits does flexible working have to offer businesses?

Additional benefits of flexible working 

A Gallup poll report found that flexible and remote working options results in healthier, more engaged, enthusiastic and positive employees. Business gains include 21% higher profitability, 40% fewer quality defects. Research by Oxford University’s Saïd Business School found a 13% increase in productivity when workers are happy, with a strong causal link to higher sales.  

The Nordic countries have introduced radical reforms to family friendly working policies. These countries rank amongst the top seven happiest countries in the world, according to The World Happiness Report 2019. Gross domestic product (GDP) per capita, social support and freedom to make life choices were amongst the seven contributing determining the ranking.

What businesses can draw from this is that implementing flexible working structures for employees empowers them to make their life choices, leading to higher productivity and revenues. 

COVID-19 has turned the tide towards a flexible work culture

COVID-19 outbreak is compelling organisations to make an abrupt break from traditional ways of working where possible. Many organisations with office workers are rapidly adapting their structures to embrace flexible and remote working structures. Some organisations are better equipped to handle this than others.

What we are seeing is that leadership commitment, good communication and availability of technology are key enablers to make a successful transition to fully flexible and remote structures.

Has the current situation revealed any gaps in your organisation’s readiness to embrace flexible working? Have you considered other strategic ways that your organisation can deliver a comprehensive D&I program to instill a more equal, diverse and inclusive workforce?

  • COVID-19 lockdown has abruptly transformed the global workforce and flexbile working has suddently taken new dimensions.
  • Leadership commitment, good communication and availability of technology are key enablers to make a successful transition to fully flexible and remote structures. 
  • Flexible working is increasingly sought-after by employees From the organisations’ perspective, flexible working options are also a smart way for an organisation to stand out from its competitors and attract talent.


COVID-19: How to react as an Organisation

Further information to help you prepare your organisation and respond to the coronavirus-crisis can be found here.

Contact us

Johannes (Joop) Smits

Johannes (Joop) Smits

Partner, People and Organisation, PwC Switzerland

Tel: +41 58 792 91 64