Mass remote working has led to a significant shift in perceptions around flexible working, and the demand for comprehensive and supportive flexible working policies – both now and in the future – has increased exponentially. After the initial rush to adapt to the Covid-19 outbreak resulted in a hasty, piecemeal response to remote and flexible working, employers now need to re-focus on their long-term strategies, and really think about how best to manage a flexible workforce. Contrary to popular belief, flexible working is not a cure-all for workplace issues – and can, in fact, exacerbate many. To work through its complexities and best support employees, businesses need to consider work/life balance, understand external pressures, and improve communication.

Flexible working usually comprises, at least in part, employees working from home – which, if managed poorly, can damage work/life balance, disadvantage certain groups, and exacerbate gender inequalities. Home working eliminates the distance between home and work – both physically and mentally. While some employees may thrive in this situation, others suffer from a lack of physical space, necessary equipment, and mental distancing. This is often the case for younger and less financially established employees, who may be flat-sharing or working in small makeshift spaces. When given the choice between being home or office-based, these employees may choose home working for financial reasons – such as to save on the cost of commuting – even if this may damage their mental health and wellbeing. Make sure to cater for those who need a break from home, whether this is the ability to work in the office or initiatives to help restore balance and adequately resource workers.

If your organisation has instituted a working from home policy, it is vital that employees are supplied with the tools they need to work effectively. Whether that’s an ergonomic chair, a proper desk, or a second monitor, it is unrealistic to expect employees to work to a high standard if they are not equipped to do so. In addition to the physical tools required to work effectively, employees need mental tools too. The lack of face to face contact and spontaneous interaction that the physical office provides is being felt by workers across the globe, as social isolation takes a toll on our collective mental health. Make sure to proactively maintain your company culture remotely – as this is no longer supported by physical togetherness – and enhance the social aspects of work to mitigate against loneliness.

As the blurring of our work and home lives can lead to longer working hours and less physical movement, it is crucial that team leaders take an active role in supporting their employee’s mental health both to prevent burnout and fatigue. The global pandemic has added an extra layer of stress to everyone’s lives, and senior leaders must be conscious of the working culture they promote and instil in their teams. Remote working can make it harder for employees to reach out if they are struggling, and so it is critical that communication channels are available and easily accessible, and that workers feel empowered to speak openly and honestly with their managers.

Offering the option between working at home or in the office may seem like an attractive strategy but be aware that employees may not be making as free a choice as it seems. The burden of unpaid domestic labour and childcare still falls unfairly on women, who may feel pressure to continue working at home to facilitate this. Male colleagues who face less barriers to being physically present at work then gain greater influence in decision-making and higher chances of promotion, exacerbating workplace gender inequality. There’s no simple solution to this issue, but an individualised, personalised approach can help. Understand the reasons people are opting for or against working flexibly and use this to build better policies.

It is hard to underestimate the importance of listening to your employees. It sounds simple, but this is where many leaders fail. Working on assumptions, statistics, or executive insight alone can lead to policies that alienate workers by misunderstanding their needs. Instead, starting conversations with individuals or small groups helps to inform employers about the real experiences of their workforce, and their perspective on flexible working. This communication should go both ways, with managers being as transparent as possible about company updates and goals. If employees are going to be able to go into the office for two days a week from February, communicate this – and the reasons behind it – as soon as you have the information, rather than at the end of January. Not only will clear dialogue keep everyone better informed, it will also help everyone feel like they are part of the same team.

By considering each of these three issues, employers will be able to keep their employees engaged and working at their best. Feeling valued and heard by business leaders is essential to productivity: when individuals feel like part of a team, they will help a team to work.