Flexibility is the Future of Work

What does your workplace culture look like right now? Odds are, it’s sort of up in the air. The flexible workplace is among us, and we’re running out of time to figure out exactly what that entails. Some companies made the decision last year to stay fully virtual. Others are worried about an erosion of the office workplace culture. Most leaders are somewhere in between. The one thing we know for sure is that purposefully designing culture for a hybrid workplace is a BIG thing and absolutely necessary. Given that 80% of workers prioritize a job that offers a flexible schedule, and 30% value flexible work over extra vacation time, it’s high time for organizations to start fostering a flexible workplace – for real.  

The biggest defining factor of the new workplace norm is obviously the rise in working away from a central HQ. This may have been the product of catastrophic necessity, but it has actually proven to be a popular and effective work model. The trial run, though forced, was a success and so that means organizations are now restructuring to incorporate this into their culture. And for good reason: the New York Times has collected data that implies working from home will result in a “5 percent productivity boost in the post-pandemic economy due to re-optimized working arrangements.” Bottom line, all that dead time we save commuting can be put to good use exercising, spending time with family, or putting in a few extra work hours when needed.  

Before, the average work week was spent entirely in-office, with “work from home” pretty much out of question or limited. For the past year, it’s been the complete opposite. As we enter this new era of workstyle, it’s important that organizations navigate with care and intentionality. Of course leaders can strategize and predict what combination of tactics will work, but the fact is it will be an ongoing process to find a flexible workplace style that works for everyone. Each organization is different, and the landscape continues to change, so you don’t have to have a perfect plan right away. Start with a framework that fits your culture and then tweak as necessary along the way.  

Now, as the world returns to work, leaders must find the right balance.  

The success of a blended workplace really comes down to uber flexibility. The balance will vary depending on employees’ roles, natural work styles and team needs. It’s not to say that employees should have free reign, but giving them independence and trusting their judgment is likely to have positive impacts all around.   

Here are three key considerations to factor as you define your culture for this new blended world with uber flexibility: 

1. Your workplace still needs to foster community and belonging  

When team members are both in the office and working from anywhere, we need to be more intentional about how we create a sense of community and belonging to care about, respect and recognize people. Community doesn’t mean that everyone has to be together in the same place – although that can be a nice thing to experience. Connections can be created virtually and can be meaningful too. Think about when you need people to be in the office, and when you don’t.   When feasible, it is good practice to have a day or two that everyone can expect to be in the office, but don’t do that “just because”.  Surveys conducted by the New York Times demonstrate that “30 percent of U.S. employees never want to return to working in the office, while 25 percent never want to spend another day working from home.” This goes to show that a “one size fits all” approach simply will not work. People have different feelings about remote work, so the return to work should be a collaborative process. If an employee is forced to work in an environment that doesn’t suit them, it could hurt their productivity and their loyalty. As long as employees are staying on top of their work, they should maintain the right to have a say in the where, when and how they get it done. Having team members spread out only heightens the need for regular communication that builds community. One-on-one check ins are an oldie but goodie. This opens a dialogue between employees and managers, creating a safe space to discuss how they’re doing both in and out of work. This is big, because if employees don’t feel like they can openly communicate on these topics, their mental health may be at risk, which jeopardizes everything else too.  

2. Prioritize autonomy, creativity and inclusivity  

Just because people aren’t working in the office doesn’t mean they aren’t interested in developing their skills and growing their career.  And even if people are out of sight, they shouldn’t be out of mind. It’s critical to ensure team members not only have the autonomy they need and the opportunity to lean into their strengths, but that they also get the necessary feedback and stretch assignments to learn and grow, even when they aren’t in the physical office. With teams being a mix of in the office, sometimes in the office and never in the office, its sometimes easiest to lean on the people that are right in front of you. It will be essential to deliberately offer growth opportunities to everyone on the team and to give folks the room to experiment. Learning to effectively use and facilitate sessions with some people in the room and others on a video platform is key to hosting regular brainstorm meetings with the entire team. Brainstorm sessions foster creativity and encourage a more dynamic, less rigid power structure. Brainstorming also provides an opportunity for team members to learn from each other. When all employees’ opinions are given support for voicing their opinions, they feel more empowered and appreciated. Plus, it creates ample opportunity for ingenuity that might not otherwise be realized. And, don’t be quick to dismiss the opinions of younger or lower level employees – it not only sends a negative message and discourages innovation. Often times a fresh approach is what’s needed to spark new ideas. 

3. Don’t seek productivity at the expense of mental and physical health  

It should come as no surprise that we are working harder and longer, and it has only become worse with Covid-19. The World Health Organization (WHO) recently shared a study indicating that people who work 55+ hours or more are at higher risk of work-related disability and even death. To top it off, anxieties are higher than ever (partially due to Covid-19, and partially due to the society we live in today unrelated to Covid-19). Prioritizing mental health has always been important, but unfortunately is only recently becoming normalized. If you’re not convinced, consider this: the WHO has classified burnout as an International Disease, described as a “syndrome conceptualized as resulting from chronic workplace stress that has not been successfully managed.” A flexible workplace should absolutely account for mental health care in every way possible. This includes appropriately managing workloads, encouraging delegation, providing time off when needed, creating an environment where employees feel comfortable enough to ask for it, and offering good mental health benefits. As a manager, consider that not everything is urgent – so think hard about the work that needs to be done, when its due and who needs to do it.   

Implementing these characteristics of a flexible workplace is a win-win. Employees will be grateful for the freedom, and employers will see that translate to better results. When your employees are happy, your bottom line reaps the rewards. Studies show that organizations with high levels of freedom and flexibility are 10 to 20 times more likely to outperform their non-flexible counterparts. Embracing flexibility is one of the best things you can do for the success of your company, and the happiness of your employees. Now, emerging from a state of upheaval, we have the perfect opportunity to make these positive changes to our culture, so what are you waiting for? 

Shaara Roman is founder and CEO of The Silverene Group, a culture consultancy that helps companies align their people programs with business goals.

The Silverene Group is proud to be a 100% minority, woman owned business.