Creating a Flexible Work Strategy That Works
A 2022 Future Forum survey of more than 10,000 knowledge workers revealed that 80% of employees today want more flexibility in their work environment, and 94% desire a flexible work schedule. The good news for employers? The benefits aren't just for employees.
Flexible work schedules empower employees to choose where, when and how they work, giving them the ability to find the conditions best suited to the work they have to accomplish. And regardless of an organization's work model — remote, hybrid or in-person — research has shown that flexible schedule strategies may actually help increase employee productivity, job satisfaction and employee retention.
“Since implementing our flexible work programs, we have the highest engagement scores we have ever had, and we are also trending down in attrition,” said Jaclyn Tomlinson, chief people officer at London-based printing company MOO.
There are, of course, many ways to foster flexibility in the workplace, from part-time work and extended parental leave, to job sharing, flexible scheduling and shorter work days. But there are also guidelines and best practices that help ensure employers reap the benefits.
The Role of Collaboration Technology in Flexible Work
It is common knowledge by now that to make the digital workplace work, organizations need effective collaboration tools. This is even more important when implementing a flexible working environment, where there is a greater risk of information silos or overlapping tasks as employees work on their own timetable and from various locations.
Having the right technology to enhance asynchronous collaboration and teamwork is critical to flexible organizations. Employers may also want to provide training and clear communications to employees on how best to use the technology to make the workplace as efficient as possible.
As with anything that is introduced to an office environment, employees must understand the importance of using the new tools in their day-to-day processes for this model to work. Investing in technology that few use is counterproductive. To ensure buy in, employers may want to consult employees on their needs and preferences, as well as ensure the technology is up to date, user friendly and easily accessible to everyone. Having a hub or a central place where employees can access company resources at their convenience is key to flexible work.
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A Shifting Work Landscape
Much of the conversation of the past few years has been centered on remote vs. hybrid vs. in-office work. But there's a lot more to flexible work than location. Companies understand now that they can tap into pools of talent from around the world to gain the skills and expertise they need or lack in their current market. Yet in doing so, many continue to require a presence during specific hours of the day.
When implementing truly flexible strategies in the workplace, however, managers may want to consider broadening those rules to enable workers from any time zone — or employees with other responsibilities — to log in and work at times that best work for them.
"Understanding that everyone has a life outside the office and treating everyone as a family rather than as employees gives the perspective needed to establish the right strategy," said Art Shaikh, founder and CEO of Chicago-based software company CircleIt.
If letting employees work whenever they are best able to accomplish their tasks isn't realistic, consider offering the ability to pick from various shifts to accommodate working parents, students or employees with other engagements. Knowing that a significant proportion of the workers who took part in the Great Resignation did so looking for better working conditions, adopting such an empathic and supportive work culture can help foster greater loyalty among employees, making them feel important and considered within the company.
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Leave Room for Adaptation
In a flexible work environment, employees, employers and managers must not only be supportive of the new model but also trusting of one another.
"To build a flexible work strategy that works for you, you must first pay attention to your employees' needs and the nature of their work,” said Simon Elkjær, chief marketing officer at Grenaa, Denmark-based e-commerce company avXperten.
Some roles — creative roles for example — are simply not conducive to sitting in front of a screen from 9 to 5, five days a week. In fact, a lack of flexibility can stifle productivity for some people, so managers must learn to trust that their employees will accomplish their tasks as expected, even if it is in ways or at times that differ from other groups of workers.
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Even post-implementation, it is essential to leave room for change to adapt to evolving circumstances. At MOO, for instance, it was important to the company that they first sought to understand what flexibility meant to different groups of employees, Tomlinson said.
“For some, this meant working from home or wanting more flexibility in their shifts, while others desired more robust benefits or perk offerings,” she said, adding that since implementing flexible work programs, the company has observed a lower attrition rate and higher engagement scores than ever before.
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Transparency Is Key to Success
Transparency between employers and employees typically helps improve companies' chances of success by establishing trust and understanding in the decision-making process — and by rallying everyone to work toward the same goals and mission. But this isn't a one-way situation. Employers should also listen to their employees to better understand what's working, what's lacking and what's expected.
One way to establish a great partnership between the two is to have a clearly articulated work policy that outlines what's expected of both parties. Managers should be clear about their position on what flexibility means, where they're willing to compromise and what they ask in return. Conflicts can be avoided when employees understand the company’s position and policies on flexibility.
“Employees are much more open to experimenting along with you if you offer them the opportunity to give their opinion and are willing to make changes if needed,” Tomlinson said.
Note, however, that listening is not enough to build a transparent relationship. Managers and employers must be able to admit when something is not working and put in efforts in fixing the issue. Simply listening without taking action can often end up eroding trust. That is difficult, if not impossible, to regain.
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The beauty — and challenge — with today's flexible workplace is that it is unique to the organization. One size does not fit all. What works in one place may not work in another. This makes it even more critical to tailor the strategy to the needs of employees.
For a flexible work culture to succeed, organizations must be willing to try, tweak and continually revise their strategy. Particularly today, when things are evolving at a rapid pace and what worked one month is broken the next. Employers who stay abreast of changing sentiment and keep an open dialogue with employees are in a better position to transition successfully to the workplace of the future.