My newsfeed seems to be full of stories about organizations trumpeting their new “flexible” work schedule.
Surely that’s a good thing, right?
But as sportscaster Lee Corso is famous for saying, “Not so fast, my friend.”
Are these companies actually creating flexibility or the ILLUSION of flexibility?
Honestly, I’m not even sure many of these organizations understand what flexibility means to their employees – and that’s a problem.
What is flexibility?
Somewhere over the last two years, we’ve started conflating flexibility with working from home. But the truth is, these are not the same thing.
Long before the pandemic arrived and working from home became common, employees have been clamoring for greater flexibility. I have had countless conversations with people about making work more flexible throughout my career as a manager and leader.
What I learned is that people want the ability and permission to shape how, when, and where they work to work best for them. That is what true flexibility means – and it’s a little different for every person.
In some cases, it meant shifting schedules to account for picking up kids from school. In others, it was allowing someone to work later into the evening because they were less productive in the mornings.
My approach was to let my people decide what environment and schedule best suited the needs of the work they were doing. If it was heads-down creative work, they might go to a coffee shop. If they had meetings, they came to the office.
When I gave them the permission and ability to make these decisions, they were not only happier, but their performance improved. I trusted them and spent virtually no time worrying about where or when they were working.
This is also what research is beginning to reveal about what employees are truly looking for in the “workplace” of the future.
In a recent Harvard Business Review article, the authors summarized the findings of a 2021 survey of 5,000 knowledge workers globally.
The results showed that “59% of respondents reported that ‘flexibility’ is more important to them than salary or other benefits and 77% said they would prefer to work for a company that gives them the flexibility to work from anywhere rather than fancy corporate headquarters.”
But before you read too much into that, here’s the showstopper from their research findings.
However, with 61% of employees reporting that they would prefer if management allowed team members to come into the office when they need to and work from home when they need to, our data also shows that the flexibility they want is conditional upon their ability to exercise it in a way that best fits them. In other words, it’s conditional upon autonomy.
Employees want the autonomy to make decisions about how, when, and where they work.
This is what makes 100% remote, 3-2-2, and the 4-day workweek all potentially terrible ideas if your goal is to create flexibility for your employees.
One-size-fits-all approaches are all too often just new ways of controlling when and where employees work.
Telling an employee they must come into the office every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday doesn’t sound very flexible.
Neither does requiring four 10-hour days to have every Friday off.
This is simply replacing the 9-5 Monday through Friday structure with a new, equally rigid alternative. There’s no flexibility or autonomy in that – it’s just a different schedule.
That’s not to say that a 4-day work week is always a bad idea. In some cases, it seems to be the right answer. The real impact isn’t found in the specific schedule you choose, but whether your approach to that schedule meets employees’ needs for flexibility and autonomy.
How to get flexibility right
To create a work experience that feels truly flexible, you must embrace a complicated truth.
Flexibility is in the eye of the beholder.
It does not matter if you or I think a particular arrangement is flexible. It certainly doesn’t matter if the CEO says that it’s flexible in a press release.
The only thing that matters is that employees feel that it’s flexible – every one of them.
This isn't a simple or easy undertaking. We must think about it as entirely redesigning how we work.
In order to find the right solution for your organization, here are a few recommendations for how to get started.
1. Focus on solving the right problem.
This is where most organizations are going wrong right now. They are focused on writing a set of work-from-home policies or creating an ideal hybrid work schedule for employees, instead of addressing the real problem.
How can we design work in a way that empowers employees with the flexibility they desire, while optimizing their individual and collective performance?
Focusing on solving this problem will lead you to more helpful and sustainable solutions versus a one-size-fits-all approach that doesn’t actually fit anyone.
2. Involve employees in creating the solution.
The first step of any good design process is discovery. This requires learning as much as you can about the needs and preferences of those who you are designing for – in this case, your employees.
If you expect to design work in a way that optimizes for both performance and flexibility, you have to put employees’ voices at the heart of the process.
You must gather a deep understanding of what employees need and want when it comes to how they feel they can accomplish their best work.
Without employee partnership, you cannot solve the challenge of flexibility.
3. Articulate your “whys.”
For years prior to the pandemic, when employees asked for flexible work arrangements in many organizations, they were told “it’s just not feasible for your role.” Then COVID came along and suddenly it became very feasible.
Employees now know that the reason they weren’t offered flexibility wasn’t based on any real business need or barrier; it was simply that those who could make it happen didn’t want to. So, when employees are told to report back to the office after successfully working remotely for the past two years, many are understandably skeptical. Why do they need to be in the office?
As you redesign work for the future, be very clear and intentional about why decisions are made regarding when, where, or how you are asking employees to work.
There are very good reasons to bring people together (collaboration, team building, learning, etc.). When you articulate why a decision is being made that may limit perceived flexibility (i.e., your team will work on-site on Mondays), employees are much more likely to support the decision.
The days of “trust me, we know what’s best” are over. That trust needs to be earned.
This is a marathon, not a sprint.
The steps I’ve outlined here are just the beginning.
As you begin to tackle this issue with your employees, there will be other related big issues to solve around inclusion, equity, career development, upward mobility, and more. As I’ve tried to emphasize, this isn’t easy or quick work. But it’s crucial if you want an organization that can sustain and thrive in the future.
I want to warn you that, while it may feel urgent to come up with the ideal answer right now, this isn’t a time to go fast. This is too important. Don’t race to a one-size-fits-all solution that only creates the illusion of flexibility. This will only lead to future problems and frustrations for everyone involved.
Instead, race to meet your employees where they are today and engage them in a conversation about what they want and need to do their best work. Then, join arms with them to create a work experience that meets both their goals and the organization's.
About the AuthorMore Content by Jason Lauritsen