Embracing remote flexible working: The highs, the lows and what we are doing to make it a success

Millie Crook (she/her) – Head of Human Resources and Organisational Development, QAA

Development Monthly | #31 May 2024 | ‘Mindful Networks: Creating Communities of Practice and Wellbeing’

I’m writing this blog from the comfort of my home working space – a space I didn’t have (or need) four years ago. Over time this space has evolved; what started as a laptop balanced on top some books and a kitchen chair, now looks much more professional, is equipped to keep me healthy and safe and reflects my personality. I love my little workspace and feel lucky to be part of an organisation that encourages flexibility, provides the opportunity for people to work in a way that makes sense for them and helps them reach their full potential – at The Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education (QAA) we call this our Flex+ philosophy.

As the Head of HR and Organisational Development at QAA, some may say I’m biased when I talk so positively of remote and flexible working. But while I am a huge advocate of freedom and flexibility at work, and believe the benefits for many are huge, I also recognise that there are some challenges too. And that’s what I want to talk to you about today – the highs and the lows of being a flexible, remote first organisation and what we are doing at QAA to make it a success. 

Firstly, I want to tell you a bit about our Flex+ philosophy. We wanted to create a working environment that enabled us to deliver our services in a way and location that provided the best outcomes for our stakeholders and customers and met their expectations. Alongside this we were keen to empower individuals and teams to work where, when, and how they wanted, providing that business needs were met. Work is a huge part of our lives, and building something that people enjoy being part of and where they are encouraged to find a work-life balance that works for them, brings so many benefits. From these early aspirations, Flex+ was created.      

For us, Flex+ is an approach to working that doesn’t adhere to the traditional nine to five, Monday to Friday, working week that is based in an office or other traditional workplace settings – something that quickly became a reality when the world went into lockdown in March 2020. Now, just over four years on, it’s difficult for me to imagine commuting an hour into the office one day a week, let alone five! At QAA we embrace everyday flexibility and encourage a culture based on trust, communication, outputs, and connections that enables people to thrive. However, we are acutely aware that there is no ‘one size fits all’ approach when it comes to flexibility, and Flex+ is something that is continually evolving and impacts everything we do as an Agency. 

The pandemic was the catalyst for the shift in our ways of working. We were fortunate in the sense that we could easily transition to remote working, without the quality and level of services we provided, or our productivity being affected. And, as time went on, we started to consider what a permanent change might look like, how we could make the most of the unique situation we found ourselves in and continue the benefits we’d already experienced. After lots of research, surveys, working groups and conversations, we went for it, and just over twelve months ago most colleagues (96%) moved to remote working contracts. 

Remote, flexible working has a multitude of benefits, both on an individual and organisational level, including healthier, happier, and more productive colleagues to name a few! People are using Flex+ in ways that really matter to them; for some that’s time with loved ones, for others it’s a walk outside, reading a book, doing the school run or a food shop, and can schedule their time in a way that works for them, their team, and the wider Agency, as well as our stakeholders and customers. QAA is now able to advertise roles as remote and flexible as standard, which has widened and diversified our recruitment pool as we are no longer restricted by geographical locations or set working patterns, as well as making us a more adaptable and inclusive organisation.  

On the flip side, remote, flexible working can sometimes be a lonely place, and can impact colleague mental health and wellbeing. Since working this way we’ve learnt that we need to be much more intentional in our approach. We need to communicate and connect with people more – ask how they are, show an interest in their personal lives, celebrate successes, discover their goals, understand their frustrations, share how they contribute to QAA’s success.

In short, we need to be more human. When working remotely it’s too easy to get caught up in the day-to-day ‘stuff’, and our ‘to do’ lists that we forget about the human side of things, and this is even more prevalent when working remotely and flexibly, and people are less visible. It’s also important that QAA doesn’t lose the sense of community it has built over the years and is loved by so many. We have a growing range of initiatives to support interpersonal connections including topical awareness sessions, an Agency wide Wellbeing Teams Channel, Positivi-tea catch ups, coffee and #chatmenopause get togethers, monthly quizzes hosted by different colleagues, online events, and a yearly in-person conference.

We’ve found that different things work for different people and teams, and we encourage trying out new approaches and sharing best practices with each other – for example, I meet with the other managers in my area via Teams three times a week, which for some may seem excessive, but I get a lot from these short, regular, social interactions with my peers. It’s a great way to start my day, get a feel for what people are working on, and (probably most importantly) get to know them more. 

As I mentioned earlier, Flex+ is continually evolving, and as an organisation, we are always learning new things about remote, flexible working. It can be challenging at times, but the benefits and our people make it a worthwhile, enjoyable challenge. Before I say goodbye, I wanted to share a few of my top tips for working remotely and flexibly, as well why I am such an advocate for it.  

Top Tips:

Make time to get outside each day. With a 30 second commute across the landing, it’s tempting to not leave the house some days. We need to protect and prioritise our own wellbeing and that of others – it’s amazing what a short burst of fresh air can do for the mind and body. I try to go for a walk every morning, I find it’s a great way to wake up, clear my mind, and prepare for the day. 

Connect with people. This might seem like an obvious one, but when you are tucked away at home, it’s easy to get caught up in the day to day, or that big project you are working on and before you know it it’s time to log off. It’s important to connect with those you work with, and we need to make time for this – whether it’s picking up the phone for a chat, going along to a Positivi-tea catch up, sending a funny GIF to someone you know will relate, sharing a photo in the Wellbeing Teams Channel, or meeting in person. 

Be vulnerable. Remote, flexible working makes us less visible, and it’s often harder to notice if someone isn’t doing so great. The past few years have really taught me that we need to feel comfortable to be ourselves, be authentic and share if something is impacting us – perhaps you are feeling stressed or anxious about something, you’ve just come off a call that didn’t go so well and need to offload, or you are struggling with a specific piece of work. Being vulnerable and letting people in helps to create a safe space at work. 

And, to finish on a positive, here are a few reasons why I am a supporter of remote, flexible working:

Opportunities are no longer restricted by location or working pattern. The QAA HR team is made up of four people, 3 of whom have joined remotely. All of us are on unique working patterns (ranging from 14 hours per week to compressed fortnights) and are dispersed across the UK (I think the largest distance between us is 130+ miles!). 

No commute! I am saving 2+ hours per day commute time which I now use in much more useful ways. I am also saving money (fuel and car costs) and reducing my carbon footprint.  

Freedom and flexibility. I love being able to structure my own working week. I tend to work 8am-4pm as this works well for me, but it’s so nice to have the freedom and flexibility to take a long lunch break with my husband, finish earlier to make the most of the nice weather or pop a wash on in the morning. These are small changes, that make a big difference to my work life balance, productivity levels and general wellbeing. 

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