The Future of Work is Flexible

Kari Loken, M.S., Insights Consultant & Organizational PsychologistCulture, Employee Engagement, Future of WorkLeave a Comment

There’s no question about it – employees expect flexibility in their work environment. Now more than ever organizations must evaluate how work is done, how to support the varying needs of their workforce, and how to expand their talent pipeline. Having been globally and universally tested throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, it has become clear that it’s not a matter of "can we make it work," but "what flexible work model works best for us"?

Historically, workplaces wanting to be on the forefront of flexibility could check the box with minimal effort by enabling employees to set their hours, offering an occasional work-from-home (WFH) day, or permitting remote work on a case-by-case basis. Those that preferred to encourage in-office work were able to do so without mass resistance or pressure to evolve. But today, people who have spent the last 18 months working from home have discovered they enjoy it for a variety of different reasons. Additionally, those in certain roles that were traditionally required to be on-site have pushed the boundary of remote-work possibilities and proven successful. 

As we continue to evolve through the pandemic and start to define what the next phase of work will look like, leaders can’t expect that everyone will return to work and workspaces in the same way they did before the pandemic. Your people do not want to go back to the way things were before – the world has changed, priorities have shifted, and leaders must step into the future to remain competitive.

We all know that work will never be the same, even if we don’t know all the ways in which it will be different. 

Steward Butterfield - CEO, Slack

It’s no surprise that the future of work requires a significant paradigm shift, but the COVID pandemic has catalyzed us to more quickly define and clearly understand what the next phase of work will look like.

You don’t have to look far to see the signs of this movement. People are leaving their employers in what has been branded the “Great Resignation.” The time for navigating the crisis through triage has passed, and leaders are now called to transform their organizations through a sort of renaissance, defining what a post-COVID workplace will look like. Demonstrating an awareness of employee preferences, an eagerness to implement change, and a transparent vision for what the future holds, will set workplaces apart from those that are seen as stuck in the past. This will be critical in attracting and retaining talent during this period of transformation.

TIP:

Understand and measure preferences by leveraging your organization’s listening strategy. Conduct pulse surveys or special topics surveys to gather feedback on flexible work arrangements and proposed plans. 



As many organizations are considering their return-to-work strategy, what should leaders consider when facing the challenge of re-entry in a post-COVID world? How can organizations provide the flexibility that people have now come to expect, even demand?

Why Choose Flexibility?

For many employees and employers, remote work has been found to be effective and even preferable. Benefits of flexible or remote work have included:

  • Uninterrupted productivity
  • Enhanced focus
  • Reduced tardiness and absenteeism
  • Lowered transportation/commuting costs
  • Boosted morale as employees can create work environments supportive of their personal style and ergonomic needs
  • Improved work/life balance and decreased strain on caregivers
  • Enhanced wellbeing as a result of meal planning, ability to integrate fitness into the workday, etc.
  • Ability to live where they choose, without sacrificing career progression
  • Expanded talent pipeline
  • Reduced facility costs

That said, while some employees prefer working from home at least part of the time, others are chomping at the bit to return to the office. While both environments can foster social connection and collaboration, the conditions that best suit an individual can vary. The goal is to accommodate these styles while meeting the needs of the business so that all employees can produce their best work and feel supported.

To Return Or Not Return?

Organizations are in various states of “re-entry” into what the work environment will look like for the rest of this year and into 2022. Some have already implemented their return-to-work strategy. Some are in the midst of preparing and communicating their plans for doing so. Others have postponed their decisions to reconsider the entire approach. An agile approach that can flex with the situation may make the most sense. Policies that state when flexible perks can be leveraged and provide guidance for when in-office or traditional coverage are required will allow organizations and their people to move forward with an aligned understanding and an agreed commitment.   

Offering flexibility, however, does not imply a ‘one size fits all’ solution. And there are a variety of elements and implications to consider in designing an effective model. We are seeing a full spectrum of approaches in how organizations are considering the return of their workforce to office spaces. Some organizations have gone fully remote, although this is largely the exception. Fully remote work is not an option for all businesses, so we’ve seen many transition to a blended model. Some leaders have “strong opinions about keeping workers on-site, but productivity and engagement may decline if pandemic-era flexibility is rescinded too much or too soon.”Organizations and leaders need to consider not only where work needs to happen, but also consider when, and for what purpose.  

Below are some examples of how organizations are rising to this challenge:

  • Twitter: During the first year of the pandemic, a host of tech companies, such as Twitter, announced they would let employees go remote on a permanent basis, prompting predictions of a virtual future, abandoned commercial real estate and a geographic free-for-all that would let employees work from anywhere. (Washington Post)
  • Dropbox: The file hosting service said it would become a “virtual first” company in October, adding that when it’s safe to gather in person, it will launch collaborative spaces called Dropbox Studios in locations where it currently has offices, starting with San Francisco, Seattle, Austin, and Dublin. Dropbox also announced it would be embracing “non-linear workdays” allowing employees to design their own schedules. (Forbes)
  • Nationwide Insurance: Nationwide Insurance announced in May that it plans to downsize from 20 physical offices to just four following the pandemic. The majority of the company's employees will continue to work from home permanently. (Entrepreneur
  • REI: Recreational Equipment Inc. is looking to sell its custom-made new headquarters before ever moving in. Instead of a single headquarters, REI will open a number of smaller offices and allow employees to work remotely. Employees have been working from home since March. (Wall Street Journal)
  • Airbnb: Some companies just don’t know yet. Airbnb doesn’t plan to require its employees to return to the office until September 1, 2022. Their CEO states they want to “get it right” and are still working out the details of its balance between face-to-face and remote work. (Fast Company)

Of course, there’s no single “right way” to approach this next phase. As we move towards reopening offices and physically reconnecting safely and in-person, we’re all working to figure out what makes the most sense. To assist our clients with their decision-making, we’ve identified 8 essential considerations to keep in mind.

Make An Effort To... 

CONNECT YOUR PEOPLE

We are social creatures, and regardless of how our work is modelled, this will be an important consideration. People will always need ways to build and sustain relationships with one another to best share ideas, collaborate, and feel united. Our data has shown that ‘Belonging’ has increased in importance as a key driver in engagement, so we must continue to help people connect with one another, regardless of where they are located.

In flexible environments, technology will play a critical role in enabling face-to-face collaboration and real-time communication. Systems that provide ease-of-access and instant connection will facilitate progress and keep co-workers connected. These tools will also ensure everyone has a seat at the table, even if geographically dispersed.

Even those who elect a remote-first or hybrid model may choose to leverage traditional office spaces for learnings, collaboration, and connection. How these spaces are designed to function will likely evolve along with their purpose.  A recent Harvard Business Review article shares how organizations are beginning to re-imagine the scale and design of the workplace, and where home-based work remains a permanent option, it will likely be integrated within a network of organizational spaces.

REMEMBER THAT WE ARE ALL HUMAN

Throughout the pandemic we have been forced to bring our work into our homes (and in some circumstances, our homes into our work!). As a result we have had a deeper realization than ever that we are all human. Our colleagues, business partners, and customers all have families, pets, hobbies, personal interests, and other responsibilities beyond what we likely saw in our pre-pandemic day-to-day work lives. Continue to make it acceptable and comfortable to talk about personal issues at work, check in with your teams frequently to ask how they are doing, and recognize that we are all more than just our work.

PRESERVE YOUR CULTURE

Culture is based on an organization’s underlying values and the hidden assumptions people make about how to work together and get things done. Parts of culture that may have been quite clear when face-to-face are harder to keep alive when people are dispersed. Many have concerns about what will happen to their culture when they adopt flexible work practices. So it is important to ask what type of work situation makes sense for your company’s culture.

Some suggestions to consider:

  • Invite ideas from your employees to help brainstorm new ways to maintain, support, and positively evolve your organization’s culture.
  • Be mindful of and inclusive to different individual needs and varying levels of comfort or acceptance of the current work environment.
  • Explicitly call out aspects of culture or values that are happening in everyday tasks (e.g., collaborative decision-making), especially those that may be harder to observe in a remote environment, and share why that matters.
  • Prioritize and take an interest in your employees’ professional development and your investment in your team, so they will be committed for the long haul.
  • Praise regularly. Share wins and successes across the team, directly from managers, but also by providing opportunities for teams to give recognition to one another, building camaraderie, collaboration, and teamwork.
  • Not every aspect of culture may be worth keeping.  A time of disruption presents an opportunity to remind employees of what has shaped its culture in the first place and of your organization’s strengths in navigating current challenges. Consider how new practices may even help to evolve the culture in a positive way.

KEEP PEOPLE GROUNDED WITH THE BIG PICTURE

We know when senior leadership communicates an inspiring and motivating vision, this drives higher levels of engagement. Organizations and leaders should clearly communicate and emphasize their vision, mission, and strategic priorities – and help directly connect their employees’ daily work to the goals and outcomes of the business. While our 2020 data showed that engagement remained consistent over the past year, one key difference that emerged was that employees had less understanding of organizational goals. What may feel like overcommunicating on these organizational principles will help underscore and disseminate the importance of everyone’s day-to-day work and how it connects to the bigger picture. In turn, this will help employees understand how they are adding value and contributing to the broader purpose.

DON’T COMPROMISE EQUITY

When implementing flexible options, you will need to consider employees’ perceptions of fairness. If people perceive policies and/or treatment to be inequitable (i.e., practices that favor certain people or groups), engagement will be jeopardized.  Inequity or preferential treatment compromises employees’ perceptions of job satisfaction as well as their commitment toward their organization. “Changes in outcome allocations, company procedures and interpersonal treatment that make employees feel that they are being treated more fairly can go a long way towards improving their job satisfaction, employee engagement and commitment.”3

This is not easy when there is no ‘one size fits all’ experience – organizations and leaders must understand the concerns that are top of mind across your workers, but also consider ways to ensure a consistent and equitable employee experience. If management has the autonomy to individualize to the needs and preferences of employees, clearly explain and communicate why this is possible – taking into account variables like the nature of the work, the composition of the team, and the managers' abilities — so that it’s transparent and objective as possible, rather than running the risk of being perceived or interpreted as favoritism.

FOCUS ON THE WELL-BEING OF YOUR PEOPLE

We’re seeing well-being concerns being top of mind across clients as people consider their options. While some companies or businesses may require vaccination status, there are still concerns around safety, both physical and psychological. Physical well-being includes an emphasis on health and safety, cleanliness of workspace, availability of testing and treatment. Psychological well-being supports workplace practices, such as flexible schedules, that address workers’ mental and emotional health. Leaders needs to recognize the diversity of workers’ individual expectations and experiences and continue to support them through this transition.

Additionally, concerns over burnout are real.  People are tired, overworked, exhausted. Consider ways to offer support to your employees and give them a chance to step away from the pressures of work in order to rest and reenergize.  Some companies, such as LinkedIn, are providing company-wide mental health days or weeks to alleviate some of the mounting stress and pressures they’ve been under for the past year and a half.  After returning rejuvenated and recharged, their Chief People Officer remarked on how critical the wellness and mental health of employees is to any business (Forbes).

LISTEN TO YOUR EMPLOYEES

Balance what your employees are saying with needs of the organization. This includes incorporating employees’ ideas and voices into decisions. We know that implementing changes when decisions are made with employee input are more successful, particularly when times are uncertain. In determining where workers need to be, as well as for what purposes and when, it will be critical for leaders to make decisions that incorporate the employees’ ideas and experiences and align this with the organization’s needs.

For assistance in designing a listening strategy to explore your organizations’ approach to the future of work, contact Newmeasures.

COMMUNICATE EARLY AND WITH INTENTION

Whatever your plans are for the next several months, communicate your organization’s plans well in advance. The earlier you can share with employees what the ‘return to office’ strategy will be, the better. People need time to adjust their expectations and want to be kept in the loop.

Furthermore, be open and transparent in why these decisions were made so that employees understand the rationale behind the actions your organization has taken.  Use multiple channels to communicate. As Global companies already know, when workers are distributed, synchronous communication becomes more difficult. Organizations must therefore get comfortable with asynchronous communication and clear expectations about response times.4 And if flexible work arrangements aren’t possible for your organization, be up-front and honest about why. Explaining the rationale behind leadership’s decisions goes a long way to helping employees understand and accept them, even if they aren’t the employees’ preference.

CONCLUSION 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shifted employee expectations about their relationships with their organizations. Thus, it is important for leaders and organizations to develop and drive best practices to ensure that employee–organization relationships are aligned for organizational survival, sustainability, and growth. If nothing else, this pandemic has taught us that we must adapt. Be willing to adjust, flex, and change course as necessary.  We’re not out of the woods yet. As we near the end of summer, organizations are changing their well-thought out plans due to the surge of the Delta variant. This is important to help employees believe the organization truly cares about them, their contributions, and their well-being.

While there’s no ‘one size fits all’ for how to address this unique challenge, we can expect that the most successful transitions will be those organizations who incorporate employee needs with business needs. Leadership must leverage their experience, foresight, and their understanding of their organization and balance that with employee feedback to create a solution that will support them in their future of work journey.