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Will Flexibility Survive the Return to the Workplace?

June 25,2020 Employee Experience
scott clark
By Scott Clark

The shift from rigid work policies to flexible arrangements for employees has taken on an even greater level of importance over the last several months. Although many companies were already increasing the level of flexibility in their workplace, the COVID-19 crisis brought it all to a head. As a result, many companies are making operational changes that may continue long after COVID-19 is a distant memory.

One of the perks of remote work is the ability to set the hours you work, as you are, in theory, being judged on your output, rather than the time you sit in front of your computer. When people slowly return to the office, will the flexible workplace survive as businesses transition from business continuity to economic recovery?

Flexibility Has Proven Itself to Encourage Productive Workers

Businesses in the largest tech industries have taken the lead in this area. Companies such as Amazon, Facebook, Google, Microsoft, Spotify, Twitter, and others have extended their flexibility guidelines for an additional period of time, or in Twitter’s case, indefinitely.

CMSWire spoke to Alexandra Bowden, SHRM-CP, hiring, onboarding and retention lead for PEOPLEfirst, Talent & Retention Consulting. When asked if she believed the current level of flexibility will continue, she replied that "I absolutely think it will continue to be a factor. Only about 3.5% of the workforce worked remotely for half the week or more prior to COVID-19 [lockdowns and restrictions]. We had a drastic shift due to the mandated SAH [Safer At Home] orders. Now we are seeing that businesses are realizing how productive they can still be working virtually, as well as how much money they save having remote capabilities among their staff. In addition, many people have begun demanding remote work options as part of their job search. So I think you’ll likely see a 50% increase in companies offering remote work options — not only for their own benefit, but inevitably because that’s what the talent demands!”

Bowden already sees flexibility becoming a serious retention issue for businesses that are not going to continue offering flexible arrangements. She emphasized that "We can no longer use the excuse that this doesn't work for a business. We've already shown that it's possible because we've had to make it work. I have already had jobseekers contacting me regarding their current organization not being willing to offer any flexibility in this area and then wanting to find a new company that will. This is going to be a turnover and retention issue for all of us. We need to be thinking through this thoroughly — how we manage to transition back and what sort of flexibility we are offering moving forward."

Benjamin Granger, senior principal at Qualtric’s XM Institute and an employee experience and customer experience evangelist, like Bowden, sees the expectations that employees have for their employers changing. He said that "I have been very interested in the role of changing employee expectations. This is not a topic we normally measure in the employee experience (EX) space but I think it’s an extremely important concept to consider. Simply put, the same policies, procedures, technology that we used to use in 2019 can be perceived very differently in 2020 based on the extreme experiences employees went through over the last few months. For example, many are now well aware that they can get their work done and be productive working odd hours and/or working from somewhere other than the office."

Granger reiterated that the flexible workplace guidelines that businesses put in place will play a large role in attracting quality employees going forward, and stated that “For companies that do move to more flexible workplace policies, particularly for their knowledge workers, I believe it will dramatically improve their ability to attract and hire more diverse and higher quality talent. I am not sure it will systematically influence retention, aside from the possibility that organizations who adopt these more flexible policies last, will be at a dramatic disadvantage when it comes to recruitment and retention.”

Malte Scholz, CEO and co-founder of Airfocus, told CMSWire that for his company, flexible hours were the solution to the disruption caused by the pandemic. Scholz related that "We’ve been working remotely for a few years now, but we’ve only introduced flexible hours when the coronavirus pandemic began. While we all worked remotely at some point, the lockdown was the first time that our entire families were with us all the time at home while we worked. This meant that a standard 9 to 5 workday became pretty much impossible. We tried out flexible hours and our productivity shot up massively. We realized that we are all productive at different times during the day and that it makes no sense to force each other to work from 9 to 5 if we aren’t in the same location anyways. We intend to keep flexible hours even after the pandemic dies down because it just makes so much sense in a remote team."

Professor Timothy Golden, area coordinator of Enterprise Management and Organization at the Lally School of Management, told CMSWire that he already sees the effect that the flexible, remote workforce has had on recruitment, and stated that “With the current more widespread use of remote work, the recruitment process is evolving to meet this new landscape. Companies are currently recruiting remotely, and this is likely to continue. This change is also forcing companies to adapt their on-boarding process in order to smoothly incorporate the new talent they hire.”

Flexibility Increases Employee Job Satisfaction

A recent study from Buffer.com entitled The 2020 State of Remote Work indicated that 32% of those polled said that a flexible work schedule was among the top benefits of being a remote worker. For them, this means that they are able to begin and end work at their own schedule, and they are able to take breaks as required when situations arise (such as their currently out-of-school children needing their attention). For these workers, the traditional 9-to-5 routine is out the door, and the new “work when you can” schedule is in.

Azurite Consulting recently conducted a survey of 3,500 business decision makers, SMB owners and employees. The survey indicated that the ability to work remotely during the COVID-19 crisis has improved the work-life balance and mental health of employees and employers. The survey also showed that 72% of managers and 68% of employees felt that they were able to work as efficiently, if not more efficiently, working from home offices. More importantly from an employee experience perspective, the survey indicated that 37% of employees felt that they are having a better work/life balance now than compared to pre-COVID times. Additionally, the survey showed that flexible hours have allowed 27% of those polled to alternate working hours with their spouse so they can engage with their children — and 18% are actually putting in fewer hours to be able to spend more time with their children. Clearly, the flexibility that companies have provided employees has been a positive aspect of the forced move to a remote and distributed workforce.

Professor Golden is encouraged at the effect that workplace flexibility has had on employee experience, and stated that “With the widespread shift to remote work, employees are able to work much more independently. While they naturally must still be held accountable for being productive and delivering on-time, they are being granted much more flexibility as to how they carry out their work. This added discretion in terms of how they carry out their work is likely to boost job satisfaction and provide a more positive work experience overall.”

Scott Wharton, VP and General Manager of Logitech Video Collaboration Group, shared with CMSWire about how Logitech has embraced flexibility in their organization. Wharton said that “This newfound flexibility allows workers to be more agile in the work environment and therefore more competitive. In the past when looking for a job, employees were either bound to their current location, or needed to be willing to uproot their life. This will no longer be the case, employees will have more options, and companies will have more talent. In addition, employees won't need to plan around commutes and travel as much, allowing them to be more focused on their work/life balance."

Trust and Reliability of the Flexible Workplace Has Been Proven

The concept of asynchronous communication — that is, when data is transmitted intermittently (think of email) rather than in a steady stream (think of VoIP) — is a good analogy for the flexible workplace. As a form of asynchronous communication, when emails and text messages are exchanged, responses come in at different times of the day. In a similar fashion, for each employee, work production is going to vary at different times of the day, based on their situation, especially in a remote office. The flexible, remote workplace encourages the practice of judging employees on their actual productivity and output, rather than the specific hours they are working.

As a result of the last few months of widespread remote and distributed workers with flexible hours, businesses have discovered that work has indeed continued, often with a higher rate of productivity than ever before. A Gallup poll from May of 2020 indicated that 52% of managers will allow employees to work remotely more often because of the positive experience they had with remote workers during the crisis. Overall, the sudden or forced experiment with remote workers has created a level of trust between team leads, supervisors and those who work under them that has always been lacking for remote workers.

Flexibility Has Allowed Business to Prosper During Crisis

Leaders have discovered that by allowing their remote workers flexible hours, they have increased the innovation, productivity and engagement of their employees while also providing operational resilience to businesses that would likely not otherwise have been able to survive the COVID-19 crisis and the associated lockdowns and restrictions placed on businesses and individuals during this period. A SHRM report from April 2020 highlighted the impact that COVID has had on the workplace. The report stated that 83% of more than 2,200 human resource professionals surveyed have had to adjust their business practices.

It’s not just flexible hours that allowed businesses to survive. Flexibility within an organization, and the ability to adapt, such as restaurants that moved to a “pickup and delivery only” model, or Lyft and Uber continuing to operate while increasing sanitation practices and not allowing riders in front seats, as well as those in the entertainment industry who moved to a streaming-only model for shows. Saturday Night Live began broadcasting live performances which featured their cast members live streaming from their home studios. Retailers minimized the number of customers that were allowed inside at one time, and required employees to wear masks, or used plexiglass barriers to stop the spread of germs. Industries changed and adapted to the new variables that came with the pandemic. Flexibility of the operational practices of a business allowed that business to remain profitable during a crisis.

New challenges required new ways of doing business, and businesses rose to the occasion. Those who adapted were able to stay afloat, and others even prospered and were able to help their communities — and consumers have long memories. Flexibility enabled businesses to keep their workers safe, while continuing to provide them with a way of making an income. Many businesses set a tone and culture that gave their employees something they could be proud to be a part of, increasing the level of job satisfaction, loyalty, and consequently, employee retention as the world continues to come out of the crisis.

The Flexible Workplace Is Not for Everyone

Jeff Kortes, Employee Retention speaker and founder of Human Asset Management, shared that this won't work for all workers. When asked if he believed that businesses would continue to allow flexible hours post-COVID-19, Kortes said that “I think they'll be flexible where they can be. It [flexible hours] doesn't impact productivity and teamwork. Most organizations have metrics to be able to gauge whether or not somebody is optimally working. As an example, the medical clients that I have were talking about their office people. They've got some flux on it, but they were allowing flexible hours.”

Kortes mentioned that some industries have found that while remote workers have indeed been able to continue to perform their normal tasks, the limitations of the remote workplace have created issues that do not occur when employees work in an office environment. He stated that “What I'm hearing is many businesses are looking forward to getting people back in the office. Another one of my clients has been running a manufacturing operation. Those people that could work remotely, mainly the office people, were working from home. Their goal is they want to get people back. They're not worried that their people aren't working. It's more the loss of a sense of community, that esprit de corps that they have, the camaraderie of having people in the office and the interaction. They don't find that they get as many ideas — there's a sense of disconnect there. When you're in an office, you think of something and then you step into somebody's office and say hey, you know I'm thinking about this, sir. Remote workers don't have that ability, so what they're finding is they don't have the same level of creativity or teamwork.”

Qualtric’s Granger also recognizes the challenges that have risen for remote workers, and related that “The challenge I see is that while we can use technology to connect, many people will struggle with social connection. Many of the well supported theories of work motivation include social connection as a key reason people work in the first place. So this is definitely a concern people have in the current environment as many peoples’ social networks are heavily dependent on work.”

The question remains, are workers ready to go back to working in-house? Granger said that “our research is showing that many remote employees are still uncomfortable with the notion of going back to the workplace for safety reasons. For example, less than 40% of the employees we surveyed globally said they would be comfortable going back if no changes were made to the organization’s workplace safety policies.”

Kortes believes that the ability to offer flexible hours and remote work is, and will continue to be, limited to those businesses where it is applicable, and stated that “I have clients from the medical, hospitality, manufacturing, and food processing industries, and this is kind of from a general standpoint, needless to say, when you're when you're grinding castings you can't be at home.” He believes that in other cases, businesses will continue to allow employees to work remotely on a limited basis. Kortes reflected that “I'm hearing business leaders say, yeah, maybe we'll let somebody work out of the house one day a week, because we find that that's productive. At the end of that one day they're super productive.”

Granger tends to agree, and said that “I think that ‘workplace flexibility’ will be the key. For example, it’s not about completely pivoting from work-from-work to work-from-home completely or moving from 9-5 to work whenever you want, the companies that get this right are going to expand options for employees. Give them more autonomy in deciding when and where they work, so long as they are achieving their objectives of course.”

Final Thoughts

Many of the changes that businesses have implemented to survive are here to stay, including flexible hours and the remote/distributed workforce. As Professor Golden emphasized, “This appears to be a turning point in terms of remote work, and it seems here to stay. Never before has remote work been carried out on such a wide basis, and this is changing mindsets about its acceptability. Although many employees will of course return to working in the office, it seems likely that remote work will continue on a widespread basis after the pandemic has passed.”

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