Lockdown obstacles are best overcome with a flexible approach

Jun 11, 2020

Written by Clare Hewitt, UCL

“Even under the most difficult circumstances you can have creative flexibility.” – Anne M. Mulcahy, former chairperson and CEO of Xerox Corporation.

During lockdown I, like many others, have been faced with the challenge of working remotely whilst simultaneously home-schooling my children. As a manager I have also been charged with maintaining the performance of my team who are facing similar challenges. How best to deal with this issue? As with any problem, flexibility, a willingness to listen, ask for help and be open to innovative solutions are at the heart of solving this conundrum.

Everyone’s situation is different. My solution was to reduce my hours, as has my partner and together we were able to put a home school schedule in place for my children which we take it in turns to oversee. I’ve been lucky in that my workplace has proactively put in place a policy that those with caring responsibilities can reduce hours with no financial penalty, but as a result we have both had to concentrate our work efforts on core activities. 

The arrangement works for us for the time being but I would not presume to prescribe this solution for all. Instead I have some tips for both managers and staff for how to navigate coming to agreement over new flexible working arrangements that provide both business continuity and attend to family needs. Key to these is not to make any assumptions that your situation is the same as for others and avoid being prescriptive.

The first thing is if you do have competing demands for your time, you may well have to accept that you just cannot do it all. The second thing is you should expect and demand help from your family and from your employer. Women are already being disproportionately affected by the Covid lockdown with many being expected to take on the lion’s share of housework and childcare in lieu of their careers. It is only fair that your partner takes on childcare and house work responsibilities. Equally you may need to make it clear that your organisation cannot expect the same output from you and that you don’t expect to face any penalty for that.  Finally find out and be ready to challenge your company’s policies. Some workplaces have already made provision for staff that find their time has been actually reduced rather than increased by being at home due to caring responsibilities. Others have not. If you are in the latter group then be ready to quiz your HR department and point out examples of best practice in your sector. 


Flexible working tips for managers

  • Lead by example. Often leaders feel the example has to be a superwoman, doing it all and burning the candle at both ends. Not so. If you have come to a new working arrangement to accommodate the needs of your children and your job then let your staff know. If you are finding it a challenge, it’s OK to be human and let your team know.

  • Keep your team informed about flexible working policy and how that is changing in the new climate and proactively invite discussion and suggest options.

  • Listen and be open to suggestions. You may have ideas about how a flexible arrangement should work but don’t dismiss alternative proposals out of hand. Give them consideration.

  • Manage expectations / ask for additional resource. If you have several team members who are doing reduced hours as a result of providing childcare then identify your core priorities and make it clear you will concentrate on these. You may well have to say no to additional demands on your team or make it clear to your organisation that additional resource will need to be found.

Flexible working tips for staff

  • Consider your priorities and what works for you. Some people like to have clearly delineated family and work time. Others may be able to snatch time to work whenever needed. This will depend very much on your working style and your family.

  • Approach your manager with a proposal. But be prepared to be flexible too and consider alternate proposals.

  • Think about what the core outputs of your job are and focus on how and whether you can provide those.

  • Know the HR policy – both on flexible working and on furlough, leave and unpaid leave so you know what options are available to you.

  • Be prepared to review your arrangement and change it in discussion with your manager. This could be because your new arrangement is not working for you or because its not working for your organisation.

  • Ask and expect help, from your partner, your family and your organisation. Do not struggle away in silence.

At the end of the day remember it is beneficial and economical for organisations to retain experienced staff and to find ways of showing them they are valued and accommodated. Business continuity can be maintained even if the outputs may have to be changed and expectations altered. The working landscape is never static, Covid may have brought a sudden and fast change but it may be worth reflecting how much was being done just because that’s the way it was always done. By being flexible and finding solutions to thorny problems now, we will also create many opportunities for new and more effective ways of working for the future. 

Further reading