It’s time for organizations to radically rethink the employee experience

Nearly 4 years after the Covid pandemic upended work norms around the world, most of us are still struggling to find a new normal. Employers are faced with a multitude of conflicting demands. They must boost productivity and contain costs in the face of inflationary trends and slowing economic growth, while shareholders have their eyes riveted on the bottom line. At the same time, they must keep exhausted workers motivated, as they struggle to adjust to remote or hybrid working, stress at the prospect of returning to the office, and confront a drastic rise in the cost of living.

Despite the clear benefits of flexibility, many managers are still reluctant to offer flexible arrangements because they worry about diminished productivity, corporate culture and collaboration. A successful transition to flexible working will require a new approach to human resources management.

Traditional approaches to flexibility

Most organizations have typically approached flexibility it in one of two ways: either as an ad hoc work-life accommodation available upon request, for illness or childcare; or as boundaryless working, deployed by many managers during the Covid-19 period to transition their organization to widespread remote working. In this case, employees are explicitly or implicitly expected to be available 24/7 to answer e-mails or put out fires. While accommodation offers great flexibility to the individual, boundaryless working offers tremendous flexibility to the company. Neither approach is sustainable over the long term.

What does ‘inflexible’ hybrid flexibility look like?

Hybrid work models, blending remote working with fixed office days that are largely set by the employer, are falsely flexible, as in most cases they do not reconcile the work and nonwork needs of employees, who have no control over where and when they work. What's more, not all the tasks of a in-person job need to be performed in person. A major tech firm, for example, uses the "Retail Flex" model, allowing in-store employees to work remotely for technical support and online sales.

At the other extreme, implementing widespread boundaryless flexibility, without structures or norms, will result in a system that is disorganized, scattershot, and reactive to work requirements. Expectations about where and when to work may shift without warning. As a result, work intrudes upon off-duty hours, while employees strive to lead predictable lives outside of their working hours.

What does true flexibility look like?

True flexibility requires a strategy that aligns the interests of employer and employee, delivering a mutual benefit that meets both performance and work-life balance requirements: it's about staying competitive in the long term by giving employees a say in how flexibility is implemented in their team or organization.

This is both a top-down and bottom-up process. The organization provides the scaffolding – flexibility options, resources, equipment and performance management systems – while each employee or team can decide how to organize their work within this scaffolding, ensuring that customer requirements are met.

To do that, to move toward a more-flexible working culture, leaders must first assess their current culture. How do they define flexibility? Has the company leaned more toward accommodation, boundarylessness, or a combination? What policies has it embraced, and for which jobs? Then they can assess which true flexibility principles should be further embraced.

Comprehensive flexibility cannot be a temporary fix, or a privilege bestowed on a select few. Rather, it needs to be embedded in the organizational culture , a sine qua non for an inclusive and productive workplace.

True flexibility is an evolving process that requires open-mindedness to experimentation and new ideas. Some arrangements may not work at first and may need to be adjusted. This is normal – implementing flexibility involves a learning curve.

Leading change by adopting a new approach to workplace flexibility

1.     Focus on equity

The concepts of equity and equality are often conflated, even though they are distinct. People are different, and providing equal opportunities for success requires equity – supporting their needs while providing them with the necessary tools to work most effectively.

Every job deserves flexibility. Flexibility should be offered to office workers and front-line workers alike. I remember when my company gradually expanded its flexibility by experimenting with summer hours: An employee could partner with a peer to cover each other’s Friday workload, enabling them to take every other Friday off.

Flexibility for all workers is possible. I know of an engine manufacturer who, even before Covid-19, regularly scheduled highly cross-trained “floaters” who could rotate jobs and shifts and replace their colleagues whenever they needed help. That allowed its teams to function well during the pandemic, when workers had to care for children during school closures or attend to other personal needs. Another example comes from a busy metropolitan police department: Officers, including supervisors, were able to use predetermined compressed workweeks to create more-predictable schedules and allow for recovery time.

Ultimately, all employees need to be supported in their personal lives. If your flexibility policies exclude a segment of your workforce, there's a problem.

2.     Establish clear structures and policies empowering employees to create and manage their own flexibility

Workplace flexibility takes many forms, such as: schedule: vary hours to meet daily, weekly, or monthly expectations; place: work off-site using technology or other types of communication; continuity: opt for time off without losing your job; workload: opt for less than full-time hours in exchange for a commensurate reduction in pay; and mode: vary the extent of off-site work.  

Management has to understand how each type of flexibility aligns with the work at hand, their employees, and their policies. Various combinations of flexible arrangements can have bundling synergies. For example, location and schedule flexibility sometimes work well in combination.

Organizations should develop clear written frameworks of flexible working structures and policies, with guiding principles for decision-making and expectations.

Here’s an example of a brief checklist:

  • Develop a written policy that clearly lays out expectations.
  • Communicate with all employees about flexible working opportunities; inform external stakeholders, such as customers, about the organization's commitment to flexibility. For customers who demand 24/7 responses, integrate their expectations into flexible working plans – for example, by staffing key accounts with several employees and sell this as a benefit to the customer.
  • How has the company decided to manage location-based pay equity? For example, will all fully remote workers who perform the same jobs, regardless of whether they live in Tulsa or Los Angeles, receive the same base and merit pay?
  • What are fair criteria for how the team sets core hours – say, from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m.– when members will be available for collaboration, meetings, and communication?
  • What is an equitable way to set limits on employees’ availability, and what are norms for respecting time off?
  • Use clear metrics to evaluate employees on the quality of their work, not on timing or quantity.

Within these guidelines, the role of management is to match flexible work processes with the requirements of customers, product creation and services.

The choices made must be viewed as fair by both leaders and employees. Studies show that when they are, workers who experience work-family conflict nonetheless remain committed to their organizations.

Although clear policies and consistent implementation are important, overly restrictive policies are not the answer. Processes should be adaptable.

Final thoughts

The business case is clear: today's workforce expects maximum flexibility. It's time for companies to fundamentally shift the way they think about flexibility: provide real flexibility to retain and develop a globally diverse, sustainable workforce – or don't, and you'll watch your employees leave.

Multi-faceted flexibility reinforces employee commitment and performance, not only on a case-by-case basis, but also on a large scale. It enables greater organizational agility by empowering teams to collaboratively define and control their own means of achieving the organization's strategic objectives.

Such flexibility requires defining new ways of measuring organizational productivity, as well as redefining the way performance is assessed and rewarded. As part of performance management, companies will need to place greater focus on outcomes and outputs, as well as on the critical inputs, such as collaboration, to make it happen.

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