Flexible work is an often coveted, but misunderstood, concept in the world of work. 

When I started my professional career in 1997, the concept of work life flexibility, or flexible work environments, was something we talked about in HR, but rarely allowed. Like many other people, I had a job that required long hours of overtime, often year-round. The expectation of being visible and available at all hours of the day and night was reality. And as a young worker in my twenties, I learned that the executives I worked with, the leaders and mentors I looked to for guidance, had never experienced working in a flexible environment. It was such a foreign concept that they could not imagine how to navigate all the perceived challenges and barriers.

As we entered the 2000’s, the concept of work began to change. The outcry for more flexible work conditions was growing. And while most organizations remained steadfast in their traditional work options, the pressure was building for change. There were many reasons organizations were hesitant to allow flexible work arrangements. One reason was the technology was not quite ready to support large numbers of employees working from home or other locations. Other reasons included fear of change, lack of understanding of how to measure productivity, and lack of trust that employees would work and not take advantage of their employer.

Now, as we are mid-pandemic in 2021, the ability to have both flexible work arrangements, and flexibility within our work environment, is a standard we are all implementing. While mass vaccination is leading us to consider all the ways to successfully bring employees back to the workplace, the Delta variant, and possibly future variants, are fueling conversation on how to have a truly flexible, adaptable workplace. Leaders are experimenting with new transformative ways to ensure employee safety while also keeping business running successfully. It’s a delicate balance of work and personal life.

We are head-long into a pandemic with no certain end in sight. This creates a variety of issues and concerns for both employers and employees. The way that flexibility in work environments comes into play is top of mind. One question on employees’ minds is what a flexible work environment is and what are the options of alternative workplaces. First, let’s examine types of flexibility within work environments. Then, we will discuss ways to help employees adjust during times of disruption, when agility is needed most.

Flexible Work Environments

Flexible work environments are those in which the ability to do work can occur in the traditional way (at a desk, in a cubicle, in a healthcare setting, or on a factory line, for example) or via creative solutions that incorporate differing schedules or work locations. The tasks associated with the work are typically done with tools directly provided by, and controlled by, the employer. When employees began asking for greater flexibility, most leaders considered ways to modify the time that was worked, coming up with ways to share a work location, or even allowing off-site work from time to time. Some examples include:

  • “Hoteling” at work came into being in the 1990s. The idea is for employees to make a reservation for a workstation and check in, much like they would at a hotel. This is an effective mechanism for the company to save cost on the real estate footprint, especially if many of their employees are only in the office part-time. It also accommodates employees who want to work reduced schedules by allowing them to share space in the workplace.
  • Remote Fridays are popular because it designates one day a week where the employee does not have to commute to the workplace. This can give the employee a sense of additional freedom from oversight, cost savings on a commute, and more time with their family. This concept can be applied to any day of the week. It does not reduce the number of hours worked but flexes the location of the work being done.
  • Reduced work schedules are when an employee chooses to work less than a full-time schedule and is compensated accordingly.
  • Job sharing is when two part-time employees split the work of one full-time job.
  • Hybrid working is when an employee flexes between working at the workplace and home. This can occur at regularly scheduled intervals, or as the situation dictates.
  • Fully remote work is when the employee does not come to the office or main workplace. They are given the tools needed to work from their home on a full-time basis.

Considerations in Creating a Flexible Work Environment

When creating flexible work conditions, leaders should consider the company culture, the type of work being done, the tools available to support alternative ways of working, how success will be measured, and how to prepare employees for the transition. Now that we are well into the COVID-19 pandemic, organizations are dealing with hybrid and fully remote employee scenarios. The impact of the rapid changes as the pandemic evolves affects physical, mental, and emotional space. Questions to consider as you create

Company Culture

Companies that empower employees to have a healthy work-life balance understand that work is just one part of a fulfilling life. Do your company leaders demonstrate that they value and care for employees? Do they trust employees? Employees are adept at knowing whether the company values and culture are real, or if it is lip service. Ensure that the behaviors from leadership match the words they say. Be proactive in asking employees what they need, what makes them comfortable, and what will help them be successful in the coming months. And don’t just ask once, make this a continuous dialogue so that as the virus variants emerge and medical guidance is adapted, that your workplace also adapts.

Boosting Productivity

Measuring employee productivity is nothing new. We’ve been using productivity as a measure of success for decades. But today, someone’s productivity is not the only important statistic to consider. Instead of only measuring hours worked, get creative. Check in more often and make milestones tangible. Put rewards in place to congratulate and acknowledge the hard work and long hours employees are putting in. Ideas for expressing gratitude can be tailored to each employee and boost their productivity.

Employee Support Framework

In addition to having contact with leaders, arrange for employees to have regular check-ins with co-workers. Encourage them to discuss whether they have the technology or other resources they need to be successful. Find ways to build in IT progress checks so employees can easily evaluate whether they have the tools they need. Employees who work remotely can feel lost. Don’t let your employees lose connection to you, their leaders, their colleagues, or the job at hand. Give encouragement so they know that even though they may be working remotely, they are still an integral part of the success of the company. It’s important to also build a remote company culture to help these employees feel included.

Employers across industries that never thought they would be working from home were forced to allow it due to health risks. Leaders adapted quickly by creating IT scenarios to support both the equipment and service help that is needed for people who are normally not working from home. Employees were forced to adjust to working remotely with less visibility, less direction and often had to do this while caring for children or other family members in the home. Today, with the current pandemic status, some employees are pushing back on returning to the workplace, both for health reasons and because some people believe they are more productive. However, according to Gallup, while 56% of employees are working remotely, only 61% of them want to work from home. This is positive news for organizations who want to bring employees back to the workplace as quickly as it’s deemed safe.

Another thing to consider is the ability for both leaders and employees to embrace being agile as it relates to the mental and physical impact work has on the individual. When an employee is given a choice of where to work, they can come to terms emotionally and mentally with what that change means. When decisions about where work happens is thrust upon them, they are forced to be adaptable and agile in a situation that they may not have experienced before. This can cause anxiety, fear of performing poorly, of not having the communication channels to understand work expectations, and the concern of not being visible for promotions or opportunities. 

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A Time of Continuous Adjustment

Pandemic recommendations change weekly, or even daily, at times. As the vaccinations became available and more employees became vaccinated, the initial plan was for people to return to the workplace. But in very short order, and with the new delta variant and potential other variants in the future, it has organizations rethinking their return to the office plans. A recent study shows that 70% of CEOs surveyed expect to have employees back to work in the office by Fall 2021. However, there are many factors impacting the flexible work movement today, both positively and negatively.

Organizations should have plans in place to prepare for the return. But right now, many factors are compounding, keeping us away from the workplace. Just as rapidly as the vaccines are launched to fight the virus, new variants are cropping up. As the Delta variant takes hold on both unvaccinated and vaccinated individuals, employees are experiencing high anxiety and burnout. The comfort we began to feel about being safe from COVID-19 is being replaced with new fear. And as the fear and facts grow, and the variant spreads, all 50 states are now applying restrictions on gathering. 

Schools, restaurants, and businesses are doing their best to comply with the mask mandates, the social gathering direction from the CDC and other health outlets, and local government guidance. Where the supply chain has been disrupted, tools or resources are not as readily available for return to the office or workplace. This may cause the need for extended periods of time of employees working from different locations. The third adjustment comes around caregiving. Whether that means caring for an aging parent or relative, or whether children's school situations may create a need for care, we all need to remain agile.

Can Employees Really Be Flexible?

Adapting to a flexible work environment is not only the job of the organizational leaders, but also dependent on each employee. There are things employees need to do to make things run smoothly. In these unprecedented times, employees should show their commitment to the organization. Choosing to be less connected or to communicate less not only hurts you as the employee, but the entire team. Be honest about your time, make sure that you are tracking your time and your productivity appropriately and communicate your needs. 

Make sure you are telling your supervisor, or your human resources department, what you need both in terms of technology to complete your job and in your tasks in the appropriate manner. Whether it's additional training that you might need based on the current situation, a collaboration tool, or some medical support, make sure your supervisor knows. Then, close the loop. When someone provides you tools that help, let them know. Having this feedback allows them to understand that what works for one employee may benefit all employees. Share your experiences willingly. 

Evolving the Employee Experience in 2021

How to Help Employees Transition

Once you’ve identified the types of flexibility that work best in your work culture, it’s time to communicate to employees. Considering their mental, social, physical, and financial needs is key, so plan to implement a wellbeing program to provide services and support in those areas. You can also include methods to reduce employee burnout and increase retention. Key steps include:

Communicate Effectively and Often

Over the years, one of the most frequent complaints of employees, even in person, is that they do not receive enough communication from their leadership. Leaders often resort to email to communicate most policy changes or benefit offerings. Since we’re in a time where things are changing rapidly, make special effort to communicate often and in a way that is as personalized as possible. Consider offering video meetings (live or recorded) over lunch. Provide food delivery using DoorDash for Work. Giving employees a sense of togetherness through a meal is a good way to build connection while communicating important information about how work will progress. 

Offer Benefits that Support Employee Wellbeing

DashPass for Work not only gives you the ability to provide meals to employees, it also enables employees to have food, prescriptions, groceries, and other items delivered. It will ease the stress and anxiety employees have about going to numerous stores and restaurants. It also shows you care about their health, mental and physical. 

Show Your Gratitude

Leading companies are showing their gratitude a number of creative ways. One of the most popular with employees is through food. 63% of companies with a robust food program in place have seen a positive impact on company culture, showing the significant impact food benefits have. You can also reward them with experiences, actions and motivational opportunities

Incentivize the Return to the Office

If you do want people in-office at least part of the time, consider ways to put a positive spin on the shift. One way to accomplish this is to provide food delivery for your team or all employees. DoorDash Group Orders gives your employees a way to pay and share their food orders.  Whether they are going to eat together, or just order together, it’s a cost-saving benefit they will be glad you offer.

Hard Choices Ahead

There are several difficult choices ahead for organizations, none of which have a clear right answer. When this occurs, we tend to look to large, well-known organizations to see how they handle business decisions. Some of the most successful leaders are currently delaying bringing employees back to the workplace. As of the date of this article, we see companies such as Google, Apple, Black Rock and Wells Fargo all postponing return to the workplace. They all target October 2021 as their return date. Amazon announced they will not require employees to return until January 2022. Lyft told their employees they will come back in February 2022 and Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey told his employees they will work remotely indefinitely.

But for other highly visible organizations, the decision to return to work has already happened. Goldman Sachs and JP Morgan are under fire for telling their employees to come back now. They must show proof of vaccination and leadership believes that will be enough to keep everyone safe. 

Employees can be agile and flexible as organizations flex their workplace expectations to fit the changing health conditions. By rolling changes out slowly, communicating often, and setting realistic expectations and goals, you will set your teams up for success. If you’d like to learn more about what companies are doing to adjust, check out The Future of the “Office:” How the Workplace is Evolving as a Result of the Pandemic.

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Trish McFarlane
Trish McFarlane
CEO and Principal Analyst, H3 HR Advisors

Trish McFarlane is the CEO and Principal Analyst for H3 HR Advisors.  As a former HR executive and HCM product leader with over 20 years of experience in Big 4 public accounting, PR, healthcare, manufacturing, and IT, Trish brings that knowledge to her clients as an analyst and advisor.  She has been the author of the Trish McFarlane blog (formerly known as the HRRingleader blog) since 2009.  In addition, she began the HRevolution un-conference in 2009 and was a founding member of the Women of HR blog.