The COVID pandemic launched the great experiment of working from home. In the past two years, workers proved that they can work differently and the employment experience is forever changed.
Employees learned to work with zoom meetings and instant messaging. They carved-out workspaces in their home, even though there was no dedicated home office. They carried on with the business of work while running a home school program, a childcare facility, and field hospitals in their homes.
Many had to find new ways to balance the demands of work and life as they were not tethered to a traditional office. They have come to appreciate some of the benefits of remote work. They got a taste of flexible work arrangements and many liked some of what they experienced.
Two years on, leaders are playing catch up. They realize that the “remote work genie” cannot be put back in the bottle. Considering remote work arrangements is now a business imperative driven by the talent crunch. The Great Resignation is happening and flexibility is its rallying cry. According to Gallup, 45% of Gen Z workers and 47% of Millennials are willing to trade 10% or more of future earnings in exchange for the option to work virtually and get more flexibility. But what does flexibility mean?
What Does Workplace Flexibility Mean?
Flexibility is seen by many workers as the newest perk and is advertised in jobs, even hourly jobs. However, flexibility means different things depending on what side of the employment equation you consider.
Flexibility doesn’t create a work-life balance. As we experienced during the pandemic, new remote workers experienced an increased level of pressure and burnout is on the rise. Even before the pandemic, remote workers often experienced high work intensity due to the instantaneous and constant communication options. But that’s not the flexibility most workers desire.
According to Steve Dion of Dion Leadership, workplace flexibility can only work if both sides of the employer-employee equation gain from it. On the employer side, workplace flexibility is only viable if performance and business results are maintained or even improved over time. Employees seek flexible work arrangements to balance work with personal responsibilities while maintaining a sense of well-being.
Flexibility is not just about when work gets done. It’s also about where we work and how much we work. Employers have to be creative in how they meet the expectations for more flexibility. Let’s understand the different work-life behaviors and explore the possibilities offered by workplace flexibility.
Flexible Workplace – “One-Size Fits All” Doesn’t Work
One of the tricky aspects of workplace flexibility is that it has different meanings depending on who you ask. When it comes to giving workers a say in how flexibility is implemented, it is important to understand that people balance work and life differently.
Work-Life behavior styles:
- Separators: They draw a hard line between their work and non-work times. When they are on the clock, they focus on the job, so that they don’t have to think about sending a late-night email.
- Integrators: They like having the freedom to blend work life and non-work life, and move back and forth between the two as needed. They do their best work when they can be flexible. To them, taking a work call after dinner seems like a fair trade to be able to run an errand during work hours.
- Work Firsters: They put their work duties above all other needs. They tend to be hyper-connected, blurring the boundaries between personal time and work time sometimes at the expense of their own health and well-being.
- Family Firsters: They take care of their personal needs and those of their family first. They attend to their work duties once those needs have been met. They are not less committed. They have different priorities sometimes linked to acute and chronic medical needs and family caregiving responsibilities.
- Cyclers: They cycle between putting work first and putting family first based on the circumstances at work and in their lives. They are flexible in their approach based on what presents the highest need at any given time, whether it be personal or work.
How to use the work-life behavior styles:
- Honestly identify your one or two dominant work-life behavior styles.
- Get those who know you (at home and at work) to identify yours. Compare notes. You might be surprised to find out that you are perceived differently than how you think you behave!
- Create your workplace flexibility map by including the work-life behavior styles of your coworkers.
- Start a dialogue on how flexibility can be implemented and how to make it work for most, most of the time.
Different Types of Workplace Flexibility
Besides different approaches to work-life balance, how to implement more flexibility is a spectrum with a variety of options.
- Time flexibility – When work gets done
If you haven’t done it yet, consider implementing flexible start and finish times around core business hours. Institute minimum manning requirements to be met at all times. In a shift-based workplace, it can be achieved through flexible shift trading between workers either through informal communications between coworkers or formally through the scheduling system.
- Flexible place of work – Where work gets done
Again, this is a spectrum from fully remote all of the time to in-person in the office all of the time. Many workplaces are experimenting with hybrid work schedules with remote days and in-office days. The key is to understand what makes sense for the business, the maturity of the team members (e.g. professional expertise, need for coaching) and their individual preferences.
- Flexibility on the amount of work – How much we work
Many workers want the option to trade time for money. In other words, they want to be able to work less even though it means earning less. Throughout our working life, personal demands fluctuate. Parents of young children and those with eldercare responsibilities appreciate the option to work on a reduced schedule. Consider part-time work. Team up part-time workers to create job sharing.
- Flexible leave arrangements – Option to suspend work for a period of time
Does your organization have the option for a leave of absence? Large employers with 50 employees and more are subject to FMLA. However, most workers in the US work in small businesses that are not subject to the requirements of FMLA. Have you considered offering unpaid leave of absence for workers needing extended time off to meet their educational objectives, attend to their family or health needs?
The COVID pandemic has changed the social contract at work. Through the crisis, workers have shown resilience and adaptability to keep their organization going. Now is the time for organizations to become more flexible and support a better work-life balance going forward. No doubt this is difficult work. However, creating the workplace of the future is an asset that will serve your organization as it competes for workers today and for years to come.