What true flexibility looks like in the new hybrid work world has been a hot topic of discussion since the pandemic forced knowledge workers and their employers out of the office and into their homes, and back again.
The term flexibility is most often used generally without any clear indication of what that looks like practically, so as a default these discussions focus on preferences around location – in the office, remote, or a combination of the two. As a result, organisations feel they are achieving flexibility by focusing solely on location, without considering that people might also be eager to break away from the traditional 9-to-5 work day structure – and in particular, days jammed full of back-to-back meetings that push ‘my real work’ into late evening hours.
It’s not surprising then that 93 percent of employees want flexibility in when they work, while a smaller but still significant percentage (76 percent) want flexibility in where they work, according to Future Forum Pulse – new research by Future Forum, a consortium launched by Slack to help companies reimagine work in the new digital-first workplace.
Flexibility: where you work
Working remotely is no longer considered a perk, but a necessity. The pandemic forced workforces out of the office and into homes, and many organisations have since seen the productivity benefits of allowing their people to break free from the traditional office environment and get their work done from anywhere. Having proven that they can be productive working from home, during a pandemic, talent will walk rather than give up new-found freedoms.
Future Forum’s research found that location flexibility has a significant impact on the ability for their people to manage stress (58 percent higher scores for those working fully remote, and 17 percent higher for those working ‘hybrid’ vs. full-time in the office), work-life balance (45 percent higher for fully remote employees) and overall satisfaction at work (30 percent higher for fully remote employees).
It’s also worth reflecting on the Future Forum data coming out of Australia, which has been a market quicker than others included in the survey in its ‘return to the office’. It is also the only market where we’ve seen consistent drops in sentiment, with Future Forum Pulse revealing a slight decline in work-life balance and productivity, and a sharp decline in the ability to manage stress and anxiety. It’s a timely reminder, perhaps, of the importance of responding to the needs of our employees for the longer term, rather than a short-term fix or a return-to-normal mindset.
As many organisations consider a hybrid work model into the future, there also exists a concern that those employees coming into the office might revert back to previous norms, such as groups in office meeting rooms dominating meetings over those dialling in remotely, and a lack of physical facetime impacting career opportunity. The concern is that a hybrid work model gone wrong could create faux flexibility and a second-class citizen experience for remote employees. It’s critical for leaders to establish org-wide principles to avoid this, ensuring that executives model them and provide guardrails for their team.
Flexibility: when you work
Since the birth of the office there has always been a stigma around schedule flexibility for employees. The industrial age brought the concept of ‘clocking in’ and being paid for showing up. For a long time, ‘first at work, last to leave’ behaviour and the always-on nature of presenteeism was lauded in performance evaluations. However, the last year has helped to reshape work mentality with evidence readily available on the productivity and happiness of employees increasing when they are able to match their work model to a schedule that works best for them – and raised the bar for managers to focus on outcomes, not attendance, to measure performance.
Location flexibility has a significant impact on employees, but schedule flexibility for the modern workforce has an even more dramatic impact. When Future Forum compared the group with structured schedule flexibility against those without such flexibility, they reported greater ability to focus (+7 percent), a higher sense of belonging (+36 percent), far higher ability to manage stress at work and better work-life balance (both 140 percent higher), and are overall more satisfied (+50 percent).
However, employees aren’t looking for complete freedom from structure. The realistic response from organisations should be to consider the benefits of a non-linear workday. This would give people flexibility outside of some required meetings at pre-set times by building a new work day around set core collaboration hours to get in sync with your team, and flexible focus time to turn off notifications and get deep into your individual work.
According to the Future Forum research, only 4 percent of Aussie employees are happy to work somewhere with a pre-set schedule with no flexibility for adjustments. 26 percent say they want to be able to work during whatever hours they choose, with no constraints. The vast majority, 70 percent, want some schedule flexibility to meet the needs of home as well as their teams: they want ‘flexibility within a framework’. My team’s solution to this has been team-level agreements on our core collaboration hours.
When putting this kind of schedule flexibility in place, it’s vital that organisations positively encourage flexibility across the business to avoid accidentally reinforcing stereotypes like the motherhood penalty – an umbrella term coined to encapsulate the myriad of issues that contribute to mothers' inequality in the workplace. Reducing the load on mothers – and reversing the ‘she-cession’ – involves normalising and encouraging flexibility for all employees. Additionally, offering flexibility for all employees ensures that working mothers are not impacted in their career trajectory. If done equitably, it affords the flexibility that primary caregivers need while reducing the demand that they ‘do it all’, rather than assuming that mothers will take on a bigger burden in home life while balancing their jobs.
Flexibility is now table stakes in the war for talent. It’s more than the number of days employees are expected to come into the office. It’s about time, place, and offering choice. Leaders must strike the right balance when planning for the future in offering employees the choice they’re now demanding, while also taking responsibility in providing the appropriate guardrails to make it work.
Learn how leading businesses are reimagining what's possible in the workplace – and how to chart the strongest path forward for your organisation – in this free eBook from Slack: Reinventing work.