What is the future of flexible working?

This is a plea to Exec teams and HRD’s not to fall into the trap of mandating the work location patterns of their organisation. Surely the pandemic has taught us that those of us with ‘office jobs’ can be flexible, communicative, productive and responsible employees when working from home?  Throughout the last 12 months workplace surveys overwhelmingly indicated >75% of employees enjoyed being able to work from home and found themselves to be equally or more productive as a result, and the organisational leaders we speak to concur.

Similar surveys tell us our staff want to work in flexible ways beyond the pandemic, although nearly half are worried this will not be supported by their organisation and are considering leaving if this is true.  There is a perception some ‘office roles’ are not suitable for home working; we have to  challenge this as much as we can.  For example, we have spoken to many ‘call-centre’ and ‘support’ workers worried they will be forced to return to the office; yet the service we have received from them has been excellent and we would have had no idea they were home-working, other than a curiosity to ask them and enquire about how it is working out – so far everyone we’ve spoken to has been loving it.

Naturally, when we are in a more mixed economy of working protocols it will be important for organisations to acknowledge this and find ways to ensure some kind of  two tier system does not develop. We hope employers will encourage other flexible working options alongside home working, which can be one of the many ways to ensure as level a playing field as possible, and we are sure more creative ideas will emerge. We will almost certainly need a more flexible and creative approach to our reward structures.

Some organisations are seeking to ensure both collaboration and fairness by mandating ‘2 days in the office, and 3 at home.’ However this is not going to satisfy employees according to our research.

It will take away the trusted and empowered ways of working which have been so valued by many during this COVID-19 pandemic, and prior within some organisations. We need a global shift in focus to output rather than input, and a significant evolution in how we ‘manage performance‘. For those organisations who have not experienced positive productivity during lockdown home-working, we would argue there is an opportunity to learn from those who have.

Of course not everyone can or wants to work from home, and very few people want to work from home every single day.  There are lots of benefits of being together in one space to build relationships, collaborate, connect, innovate, and solve problems through deep dialogue.  Many people want to see and be with colleagues, have fun times together in teams in the daytime, and perhaps socially in the evening.  Physically being together can relieve us from the sometimes endless and draining screen time of online meetings, or from the unsuitability of some home environments for home working.

Blending work in the office, with work at home, as well as from cafes, cars, client-sites, community-centres, gyms, parks or anywhere with Wi-Fi is what people want, to be able to be productive with their work time, and to live a balanced life.  The key to success is CHOICE, in the same way Sun Microsystems (acquired by Oracle) built their successful flexible ‘anytime-anyplace’ trust and outcomes based work culture across EMEA nearly 20 years ago.*

CHOICE is about allowing individuals to fluidly choose where it is most productive and convenient to work on different days, and indeed during different phases of their lives; and to ask them to blend this with the (genuine not control led) requirements of their role, colleagues, and organisational purpose and goals.

We believe teams can be encouraged to discuss and work out the ‘office v elsewhere’ patterns for themselves, in a similar way that happens now when organising the rhythm and dates for internal and external meetings. We appreciate this will be a revolution in working patterns for some organisations.  This may feel overwhelming and is triggering some ‘denial’ responses in some leaders and organisations.  However we urge those struggling with the concept to think again.  Insisting people are ‘office-based’ or mandating employees to travel into the office twice a week, is counter to the purpose lead empowerment workers now expect.

There is of course a balance to be stuck – the psychological contract between the needs of the organisation and the needs of the individual must come together in a harmony which works for both. Organisations should rightly expect their employees to organise and attend important purpose-led collaborative meetings with colleagues, clients, and stakeholders.

Internal communication and engagement will require a rethink, based on what we have learned from experimentation this year.  We will continue to use more social channels. We have an opportunity to pre-plan an annual calendar of ‘gatherings’ which combine  ‘physically present for all’  and ‘virtual for all’ events.   Many employees described a phenomenon of ‘hierarchical equalisation’ and feeling ‘more connected than ever’ to their senior leaders because of regular virtual briefing & Q&A sessions, in which their leaders felt more accessible and personable; let’s keep this benefit by keeping some of the virtual sessions.  Conversely some leaders felt more disengaged from the people outside their immediate teams; so how do we find creative, and some virtual, solutions to this challenge such as the ‘virtual fireside chats’ and ‘virtual birthday breakfasts’ some have experimented with?

We can be agile and encourage our teams to regularly review what is working and not working and keep adjusting accordingly. Let’s make it our aspiration to learn how to create high performance cultures in this flexible world of working.

We can build and nurture team relationships from close and afar to ensure everyone stays in good relationships with one another.  New collaboration tools and technologies are coming along all the time to help us.  If we keep experimenting, listening, and talking (face-to-face and virtually) we can successfully evolve to do this.

We can employ a ‘pull factor’ to bring people together through exciting choices about ‘office’ design.  We hope to see inclusive hub-style spaces where people can collaborate, innovate, connect, have fun; and some spaces for ‘concentration or desk-work’ too if this is what is productive for them.  We can create ‘neighbourhoods’ of ‘drop in tables’ and we might even keep some ‘allocated tables’ for those who might want them now, or those who might want them in the future.  Flexible meeting room structures can allow café spaces & meeting rooms to be reconfigured for lots of different sized meetings from two people to hundreds of people.

It will take time to evolve our policies and collective working spaces, so let’s ask our employees to be flexible and patient and collaborate with us on this journey, and in return gain true flexibility in their working locations and patterns. Let’s get creative, embrace this flexible working pattern and unleash the innovative thinking we need for our organisations to thrive today, tomorrow and in twenty years’ time.

Will your organisation continue to evolve the  flexible working options after the pandemic?

*We played a leading role in this project and can share the learning with anyone who is interested.  We have operated as a virtual organisation for over 25 years, with the corresponding benefits including enjoyment, flexibility, and productivity.