2020 has shaken up the workplace landscape in a way not seen in a lifetime. In almost an instant, the nation’s workers were thrust into the world’s biggest working from home experiment. Remote working quickly became the norm as employees and employers embraced this new reality.

As Australia’s workplaces turn their minds to post-COVID recovery, many will be keen to have employees back in the office and to tout remote working as a flexible work benefit once again. However, now that so many Australians have experienced disrupted working due to COVID-19, MetLife Australia’s 2020 Employee Benefits Trends Study found ‘remote’ no longer necessarily means ‘flexible’. This is particularly true for the many employees working longer hours or feeling unable to switch off at home.

As the Australian workplace continues to evolve, understanding employee and employer perceptions around remote work will be vital to delivering benefits that ensure the best outcome for both parties.

The new work-life reality

While both employees and employers said remote work arrangements were a key benefit to support employee mental health, employees are more stressed than ever. Almost 80% of employees said they currently felt stressed and 50% said they were more stressed now than before the pandemic.

Part of this may be the new challenges faced by employees who aren’t used to working from home as part of their standard working life, and therefore no longer have a clear demarcation between the office and home.

Despite common assumptions, more home time does not mean a better work-life balance. More than half of employees surveyed by MetLife (56%) said that they struggle with maintaining a healthy work-life balance while working from home.

With close to half of employees (48%) expecting to spend more time working from home than they did before the pandemic, there is a clear opportunity for employers to collaborate with their employees on effective work from home guidelines to ensure a healthy work-life balance.

Disconnect on the definition of ‘flexible’ work

The rapid increase in remote working has forced employers and employees to reconsider what flexible working means now.

The nation’s employers certainly believe that workplace flexibility, including the potential to work remotely, is the top benefit they offer. However, due to the increased blurring of work and home life during the pandemic, ‘remote’ and ‘flexible’ may not be as interchangeable as they once were.

Herein lies the disconnect regarding the definition of ‘flexible’ versus ‘remote’ working. 72% of employers say their employees have access to flexible working, but only 53% of employees agree.

This suggests that offering remote working isn’t enough to tick the flexibility box anymore. Instead, employers’ understanding of flexibility needs to encompass things like flexible work hours, personal leave, carers leave and empowering employees to manage their time.

Within the Employee Benefits Trends Study, employees showed a rising demand for broader benefits that support flexibility. These included a 9% rise in a want for additional personal/carers leave, and 5% for additional paid maternity/paternity leave. Nearly half (47%) of employees said having flexible hours would reduce stress and improve mental health.

As flexibility becomes more ingrained into the way we work, employers need to fully understand what ‘flexibility’ means to their people and ensure employees have the time they need to take care of themselves and their loved ones.

For more information read the MetLife Australia 2020 Employee Benefits Trends Study