What true flexibility at work really means

Let’s backtrack a bit. It’s March 2020. You send out a company-wide email that says your employees have to work from home. Indefinitely. Those of us working in a physical office packed up our laptops and set up home workstations. We’ve been working remotely for months and adapted because we had to.

Now in mid-2021, even with COVID-19 still something we are faced with every day,, there seems to be a similar urgency to reset back to the way it was. But why? And saying that “because, this is the way it has always been done,” does not seem to suffice anymore. The concept of work itself, and more particularly office work, has changed, and business leaders must adapt as we enter this next wave of work.

Employers must show their appreciation

Last summer, remote office workers were still navigating the uncertainty of working from home as the default. New systems had to be installed to compensate for the lack of in-person contact. All meetings became video meetings. Working parents had to balance homeschooling kids and lack of summer camps with working in this entirely new environment, or had to balance working in a small shared apartment with their partners or roommates. And still, many businesses that embraced this newfound flexibility didn’t miss a beat – and their productivity increased.

A global study released during Flex Summit Week 2021 revealed that of 8,800 workers surveyed, 75 percent agreed that flexible work is essential, and not just an added benefit. In fact, nearly two thirds of survey respondents said they’d go as far as seek out new employment for greater long-term flexibility. Let that stat sink in for a bit. 

If employers neglect the sacrifices their employees made this past year and a half, they could experience churn, a significant loss in talent, and long-term retention challenges. In other words, less mindful businesses could experience what some are calling the “great resignation” in response to companies reluctance to adapt.

As leaders, we have an opportunity to create truly flexible work environments for our employees to thrive. To do that, we should first focus on the next few months, especially given the rise in Delta variant cases across the country, while building a long-term flexible work plan for our companies.

Let your employees enjoy their summer (and beyond)

Last summer was no summer at all. And, while the global workforce adapted quickly when they had to—potentially putting family and other personal obligations aside—we don’t have to abruptly return to the pre-pandemic “norms,” especially when we know productivity has remained high throughout our time working at home. Necessity forced us into remote work and now over a year later we’ve learned a thing or two:

  • 86 percent of respondents overall feel as productive or more productive than they did before the pandemic. While not everyone experienced this, many remote workers optimized their at-home workspaces. With fewer distractions and less time spent commuting, productivity increased throughout the pandemic.
  • Fewer than 10 percent consider seeing someone’s face the most critical part of an effective meeting. If there are only a few people at the meeting, we don’t need to see who’s talking. We can tell who’s speaking by the sound of their voice. Plus, we’ve all experienced the fatigue that back-to-back video calls can cause. 

The flexibility of working from home has created opportunities to tackle burnout by converting some of the time we would’ve spent commuting to doing something that brings us joy. Personally, I found more time during the week to focus on non-work-related tasks that matter to me, like working in my yard. Breaking up the day in this fashion—a little work inside, a little landscaping outside, and repeat—has not only improved my mood, but it’s made me more productive.

‘Flexible work’ must be dictated by your employees

Similar to how we redefined “office work” this year, we need to also establish what “flexible work” means. Flexible work is not telling your workers which days to come in or which days to work from home. Flexible work schedules must be dictated by workers themselves. Focus on creating a culture where flexible work is embraced by all, and encourage employees to work with their managers to set their ideal work scenario and schedule. This requires a heightened degree of trust between employer and employee, and frankly most employees have earned this throughout the pandemic. The data also backs this up, with 70 percent of senior leaders reporting that management is more trusting of remote work, which is a testament to how well employees adapted this last year.

Leadership also needs to be transparent with all departments and employees on respective flexible work schedules. Communicate, communicate, communicate so that all parties can stay on the same page, even in a state of flux. Flexible work is designed to reduce the amount of job churn, confusion and frustration. That requires a little upfront planning and remaining diligent to the protocol throughout the transition.

When our offices reopen once it’s safe to do so, I’m not expecting to see the same office, full of Fuzers, that we left behind in March 2020. Instead, I know to expect fewer faces in-person on the days I choose to go in and that is ok. We are all better off. Flexible work may be more ideal for most businesses, but it will take some time getting used to. Expect some growing pains, but the long-term benefits of a flexible work schedule will help businesses retain talent and create a healthier working environment.