Our Managing Director Jane Braithwaite explores the topic of flexible working and how we can use it to our benefit within the healthcare sector, focusing on what it means for employers and employees.

She covers how to manage a remote team, the technology that enables efficient remote working, and how to ensure you reap the benefits of a flexible working policy.

Caring for and treating sick patients requires face-to-face contact and, clearly, our healthcare organisations must be built around this capability. But 2020 taught us there are many aspects of healthcare that can be managed without the need for us to be together in the same location. 

We have learned these lessons in a crisis-type situation having to adapt incredibly quickly, with no clarity on the time-scales involved and huge uncertainty as to what the next challenge might be. 

The principles of flexible working have been accepted by organisations for some time, but the Covid-19 crisis has accelerated its adoption hugely and it has been an absolute necessity in many situations. 

Adoption of these new working practices has been sudden and dramatic and a terrible upheaval for many, who have found their working and professional circumstances altered drastically. 

But we have learned that flexible working, in the right environment, managed in the right way, can offer benefits.


Great benefits

Benefits such as greater efficiencies and productivity, the ability to provide a service across increased geography, the potential to reduce costs, and, possibly most importantly, it really benefits many people, allowing them to do their job more productively and improves their well-being. 

We have also seen how embracing flexible working has impacted communications with patients, with the wider use of phone triage and video consultations. 

While these solutions clearly cannot replace the need for treatment provided in person in a hospital environment, they clearly can add some value in terms of patient care and potentially productivity for healthcare providers. 

Many of you will have concerns about how to ensure people work well together, particularly in terms of the ability to collaborate and how to recruit new team members and ensure they feel part of the existing team. 

This is a topic very dear to my heart, as everyone in my company has been based at home, working flexibly since I started the business back in 2013. 

I am a big fan of flexible working, but I will talk openly and honestly about the pros and cons and how to avoid some of the pitfalls and I will also address the question I am asked most by those who are skeptical about home working, which is ‘How do I know my team is working when they are at home?’


What is flexible working?

The term flexible working is self-explanatory on initial consideration, but it does cover a whole range of options, so it is worth breaking it down and considering all the possibilities. 

Flexible working encompasses flexible hours and/or flexible locations. So, it also covers part-time working with flexible working hours, and remote working, which can mean home working or it could also mean working from
several different locations.

Many of the consultants we support at Designated Medical work flexibly, managing clinics at a few different hospitals and clinic locations. It is also fair to say they work flexibly in terms of hours, as they rarely keep to the standard nine-to-five schedule, holding evening and weekend clinics. 

Over the last few months, many of our consultants have also been offering video consultations for their patients, which can be done anywhere including at home.

Loss of office space 

Many doctors work from one permanent consulting room with a permanent team of staff also based in an adjoining office. But this model is becoming less common over time, largely due to the cost of consulting and office space especially in central London and other urban locations. 

Homeworking is also used by most people to some degree. The ability to ‘log on’ from a home computer, laptop, tablet or phone makes home working very accessible.  

Technology is most definitely a key factor in flexible working and we will discuss this in more detail later. 

When you consider home working and working from different locations, it is fair to say that most people are working flexibly to some degree these days and our response to Covid-19 has driven far greater take-up of these options.

At the end of March 2020, the Office for National Statistics launched the online Labour Market Survey. The survey takes place each quarter, involves approximately 18,000 households, and asks questions regarding employment in general, but also includes specific questions regarding home working which are relevant to our topic. 

Survey results

These are the main points from the survey:

  • In April 2020, 46.6% of people in employment did some work at home;
  • Of those who did some work from home, 86.0% did so because of the Covid-19 pandemic;
  • Of those who did some work from home, around one-third worked fewer hours than usual (34.4%), and around one-third worked more hours than usual (30.3%);
  • Women were slightly more likely to do some work at home than men, 47.5% and 45.7% respectively;
  • People aged 16 to 24 years were less likely to do some work from home than those in older age groups;
  • More than half of people living in London (57.2%) did some work at home;
  • Occupations requiring higher qualifications and more experience were more likely to provide home working opportunities than elementary and manual occupations.

Clearly, the results from the survey are hugely affected by Covid-19 and it will be interesting to see results going forward, but there are some points made here that we should consider – in particular, the point that younger people are less likely to work from home. 

What do employees want?

There are countless surveys, reports, and press articles attempting to answer this question and the claims are often contradictory. 

Some say how home working is the answer to work-life balance and the solution we have all been searching for, stating vast imp­rove­ments in productivity and employee well-being. 

Others focus on the lack of company culture that results in feelings of isolation and a decline in productivity. 

Any regular LinkedIn users will have seen ad hoc surveys over the last few months and the results seem to imply that people want a mix of both home and office working, but a strong negative reaction to being totally office-based. A blended approach with flexibility seems to be the preference for most. 

Chatting with friends and family, we find this is a Marmite topic – you either love it or you hate it. Many of us absolutely love the flexibility, the ability to focus and concentrate, and to take control of our schedules. 

Others hate the constant demand to attend Zoom meetings and miss the spontaneous discussions over a coffee and the creativity of working together in an office. 

And for many households, home working created a pressure cooker with two adults trying to find space in the home to work, often sharing an inadequate broadband signal, and many facing the prospect of home-schooling.

Over the summer months, the Government published guidance on ‘Making your workplace Covid secure during the coronavirus pandemic’ and employers have been challenged with Covid risk assessments to ensure a safe environment for their employees.

Fear of office

In a recent poll of UK employers by Peninsula, one-in-seven employers admitted that they were not confident their workplace was COVID-secure. And a further one in four said they were only ‘fairly confident’, which is incredibly worrying given that there is a risk of fines for employers who do not provide a Covid-safe working environment 

I have already admitted to being a huge advocate of flexible working and, personally, I believe that all employers should have a flexible working policy. But I also believe that there is a requirement for a very well thought-through policy. 

The introduction of home working because of Covid was immediate and dramatic. This is not an ideal way to introduce huge change to how an organisation works and it is no surprise that many people, both employers, and employees, have found the situation less than ideal. 

There was no time to plan, to introduce supportive technology to enable home working or to change how teams communicate and collaborate to ensure that flexible working was successful. There was no time to create a policy.

But, to move forward successfully, it is important to take the time to create a well-considered policy that enables businesses and organisations to reap the benefits of flexible working and enables employees to succeed and prosper. 

Before creating your flexible working policy, it is important to be clear on the benefits for both your organisation and the employees the policy will affect. 

Benefits to employers

The number-one benefit to employers will be happier employees. 

Most people do want more flexibility, and offering a flexible working policy will be positive for your current team and will also appeal to potential candidates when you are recruiting.

The other main benefit is potential cost savings, particularly in office accommodation. 

By implementing a flexible working policy, you may be able to reduce the amount of office space needed overall. 

Some roles are suited to home working for 100% of the time and implementing such a policy could reduce the need for office space considerably. 

For roles where a blended approach of home working and office working is best suited, savings in space may also be made by implementing a hot-desking policy. 

And for hospitals and clinics with offices dedicated to admin support, there is an opportunity to reclaim that space and turn it into consulting space and therefore make it profit-generating. 

Administrative support is suited to remote working and an important area that everyone should consider. 

The systems are in place to allow most administrative jobs to be managed remotely and, for many people working in these roles, remote working is preferred. 

The cost savings in office space could be considerable and the improvement in employee morale could be great.

For growing clinics where space is at a premium, a flexible working policy may allow you to continue to grow without increasing your accommodation costs by reassessing how space is currently used, moving some employees to a flexible working policy, and reallocating office space. 

Benefits to employees

Most employees value a flexible working policy, as it helps them gain a better work-life balance; many workers save a couple of hours each day previously spent commuting, not to mention the cost of their season ticket. 

For others, the ability to choose to work some days in the office and other days from home is appealing. The ability to work from home to focus, without disruptions, on a particular activity, project or research activity is hugely beneficial. 

These are the key benefits, but many others may be relevant to your organisation and your employees. For example, for those of us who are concerned about the environment and climate change, the impact of less commuting is considerable.

Benefits to patients

Lockdown situations mean many patients are offered medical care via phone and video consultations and obviously the GP, consultant, or healthcare professional could be making these calls from any location, including their own home. 

At the time, this was often the only care that patients could be offered, but we also saw the positive effects of offering certain levels of care in this manner. 

These consultations will never replace the need for treating people in person, but they can be part of the overall approach to patient care. 

For many patients, the reassurance of discussing their concerns with their doctor without the need to travel while feeling unwell is a huge plus. 

Another example is when a patient is preparing to come into the hospital for surgery; they are often anxious, needing reassurance and building up a list of questions they want to ask. 

Offering these patients, a short phone or video consultation before attending the hospital would be welcomed by many patients and it is an approach we are suggesting to many of our consultants. 

We know that most patients call within 24 hours of having surgery and so a proactive approach will avoid last-minute panics. 

We could consider a flexible working policy allowing GP’s and consultants to work flexibly from home, providing phone and video consultations as a form of triage before face-to-face appointments being booked, allowing us to have greater control of how urgent appointments are allocated.  

For GP practices where space is at a premium, this could be a good solution, and offering flexible working contracts may help to alleviate the problems of recruitment. 

See IPT article ‘Flexible work aspects you must master

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