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Digital Workplace Flexibility Is Far From Being A Done Deal

August 25, 2021 Employee Experience
David Roe
By David Roe

Over the summer, it has become increasingly clear that many enterprise leaders are not happy with the thought of a workforce that is working entirely from home. Even in the tech industry, companies like Google and Microsoft have already indicated that a substantial number of employees will be returning to their campuses across the world on the condition that those employees are vaccinated.

What is problematic — apart from the resistance of some people to vaccination — is that many organizations are still trying to develop and apply strategies that will cater for the new hybrid workplaces that are emerging globally. However, as employers implement their future of work strategies, including decisions around hybrid work and increased flexibility, a gap is emerging between executive and employee perceptions on the future of the employee experience.

Perceptions Of Flexibility

Earlier this year, the 2021 Gartner Hybrid Work Employee survey of 4,000 employees showed that 75% of executive leaders believe they are already operating within a culture of flexibility, yet only 57% of employees indicate that their organizational culture embraces flexible work. Further, nearly three-quarters of executives believe the business understands how flexible work patterns support employees, but only half of employees share this view. This would seem to indicate that workplace flexibility is still problematic and many business leaders and workers are struggling with it. 

There are many different interpretations of what a flexible workplace looks like. They all, however, involve the promise of working where, and even when, employees want.  According to a recent blog from Belmont, CA-based unified communications developer RingCentral, workplace flexibility is an increasingly common phenomenon in which employees are given the opportunity to do their job in a way that suits their lifestyle and responsibilities. So, is the current workplace flexible?

The figures would seem to suggest not. Four million workers left their jobs in April 2021 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Even more telling is that one out of four workers plan to look for a new job post pandemic, according to a Prudential study. A major contributing factor poor management and poor employee experiences of which flexibility has become a major element.

Related Article: Did Google Get Its Hybrid Work Plan Right?

Flexibility Is for Keeps

Amanda Ponzar is chief communications and strategy office at Alexandria, VA-based CHC. She argues that flexibility is not just a fad, but a critically important topic that we need to get right. Many employees have gone from never being allowed to work remote, to suddenly working fully remote during COVID while juggling distance learning and other challenges, to various stages of returning to work (still fully remote, hybrid, or fully returned or TBD), to additional changes due to the Delta variant.

As a result, she says, the disconnect between executives and employees is not surprising. Executives tend to have the power, resources, financial wellbeing, standing within the company, and access to information and so feel more in control of ongoing changes in the workplace.

Contrast that with employees who often worry about keeping their jobs, who feel a lack of control, who are waiting for communications to hear about changes, and may be struggling with mental, physical or financial wellbeing during these tumultuous times. “Is there a culture of flexibility?” she asks. “It depends on the company and employees are often leaving for the companies that offer more flexibility — this impacts recruitment and retention.”

Companies need to do more employee surveys and leverage their employee resource groups and employee engagement committees to help identify issues and address them and while workplaces are more flexible after COVID there are still a ways to go, especially addressing working parents and equity issues.

Disconnect Between Worker-Employer Experiences

The disconnect between the experiences is largely due to where the different stakeholders are coming from. Although we have been in a remote/hybrid environment for over 18 months, it is vital to remember that before 2020, employers were used to direct surveillance, time management, and proximity, Joe Flanagan, senior employment advisor at Los Angeles-based VelvetJobs, said.

Although the changes of the past year have shown that businesses can function with a big part of their workforce working remotely, there are reservations about engagement, productivity, and collaboration. “That explains why Google wants to deduct employee wages if they choose to work from home,” he said. “On the other hand, employees have never experienced this kind of ownership of their own time and the flexibility to schedule their work. So, naturally, they want to convey their expectations of making these arrangements permanent.”

People have also felt more overworked over the past year and are now beginning to vocalize how to consider remote/hybrid options to be non-negotiable, he added.

With that context, the main issue of contention is that employees and employers cannot agree on a mutually acceptable definition of flexibility at the moment. That is partly the reason for the gap. Many businesses are operating under the assumption that once the pandemic is under control, things will eventually go back to pre-COVID times, a situation that looks unlikely The result is that many companies are not willing to cement the changes into permanence and do not want to offer more flexibility than is absolutely warranted.

On the other end, employees are willing to change jobs in order to continue working from home. “I think it will take time, negotiation, and listening to each other with an open mind to create a future of work that is adequately flexible for both employees and employers,” he said.

Related Article: 5 Principles to Guide Decision-Making When Building a Hybrid Workplace

Future Flexibility Considerations

Danny Speros, VP of people operations at the San Francisco-based developer of human resources technology Zenefits, believes that when it comes to flexibility across the workplace, there are two futures that need to be part of the wider conversation:

  1. Future Of Work Strategies: There is a noticeable gap between what leaders believe they are embracing compared to what employees believe the business understands as important, and according to the recent Gartner Hybrid Work Employee Survey, the difference in perceptions between employer and employee is wider than most probably anticipated. There isn’t a one-size fits all worker and there isn’t a one-size fits all approach to working. It might sound like common sense, but employers must continue to listen to employees and ensure that workers feel heard and understood at all times. When this doesn’t happen, there is likely to be misalignment within the organization.
  2. Building Employee Work Experience: In 2021, the competition for hiring and retaining talented people favors businesses that take a holistic approach to how, when and where work gets done. Driven by people operations leaders and methodologies, companies that embrace the entire employee experience with a people-first mentality are winning over current and new employees.

 Speros argues that although no meeting Fridays is important, flexibility is about so much more. It’s about building trust and having an open line of communication with your employees about what works and what doesn’t.

“Many companies are experimenting with the idea of a four-day workweek since the entire concept of work has been uprooted,” he said. “If the idea of one more day of rest (or whatever it is you do on the weekends) sounds appealing, you’re far from alone. The theory goes that if workers have the opportunity to rest, productivity will increase.”

Final Thoughts

The past year and a half have forced companies around the world to take a long, hard look at current practices and policies. It’s not about getting it right every time, but it is about listening and adapting to what your workers need today and tomorrow. The world of work has forever changed and it’s more important than ever to have people operations leaders front and center to help all of us navigate this ever-changing world to help strive for a shared purpose and motivation.

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