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A flexible work model equals more than remote work

To say that the pandemic changed how we work is a bit of an understatement.

The pandemic, for all it wrought, forced us all to set aside decades of preconceived notions for what is and is not acceptable at work. It taught us that teams could work together and accomplish some pretty amazing things even if we weren’t in the same room. It taught us that while we missed being in that same room, we had the tools and creativity we needed to connect, collaborate and engage in other ways. Perhaps most importantly, it taught us that we could be human at work. It was suddenly acceptable (and actually kind of sweet) when our co-workers’ kids or dogs found their way onto a video call, and we empathized rather than judged when someone said they needed a mental health day.

The pandemic, for all it wrought, forced us all to set aside decades of preconceived notions for what is and is not acceptable at work.

Now that we understand that work is less a place to go, and more about what we do, employees have made it clear that going back to the status quo simply isn’t going to cut it any more. There is a reason why 41% of workers globally are thinking about leaving their current employer this year.

Companies, especially people-based professional services firms, are doing what they can to adapt and stay ahead in a labor market that some recruiters have said is the craziest they’ve seen. Firms are reassessing remote work policies, rethinking office layouts and revamping benefits and pay to keep up with employee expectations, but that will only get them so far.

With salaries increasing, voluntary attrition off the charts, and backlogs that continue to grow, it’s clear the power dynamic has shifted from employer to employee. And employees have been pretty clear that one of the things they value most is more control and flexibility over where they work, when they work and how they work.

Flexible work is about more than location

Flexibility extends beyond allowing people to work from home when they want. That’s just location and remote work has been happening for decades.

When we started Appirio back in 2006, we were one of the few IT professional services firms to have a virtual workforce. While we had offices around the world, the majority of our employees worked from home (or farms, RVs, beaches…you name it). It was a huge recruiting advantage, especially when you’re in competition with deep-pocketed brands like Facebook or Google in your backyard. However, it also contributed to an empowered and engaged culture that many former Appirians still talk about today. Appirio’s key to success wasn’t that we “permitted” remote work, we optimized for it.

Appirio’s key to success wasn’t that we “permitted” remote work, we optimized for it.

We weren’t the only ones. Best Buy was experimenting with remote work as early as 2005 with its Results Only Work Environment (ROWE). According to a case study this month in the New Yorker, in 2008 “more than 80% of employees at Best Buy’s corporate headquarters were operating in a results-only work environment.”

Today, hybrid workforces or even fully remote workforces aren’t unique. According to a recent survey from The Information, 42% of respondents said their companies didn’t place limitations on where they could work.

If you’re looking to provide a flexible work environment, then enabling employees to choose where they work is simply table stakes. If everyone is doing it, it won’t set you apart. The more progressive companies are showing flexibility in when and how work gets done.

Providing flexibility in when and how people work

The 9 to 5 work day hasn’t existed (at least in technology) for a very long time. The Internet made it possible to access our work from anywhere. Cloud computing exacerbated it and COVID cemented it.

Our ability to work from anywhere, at anywhere (and to be found anywhere, at any time) means our work and home lives are now intertwined. While many lament the negative consequences of this, it also means that employers can be more flexible when it comes to work hours. At Tercera, we talk a lot about how third wave consultancies should emphasize outcomes rather than output, and focusing on employees’ accomplishments and contributions rather than work hours is a great example.

At Tercera, we talk a lot about how third wave consultancies should emphasize outcomes rather than output, and focusing on employees’ accomplishments and contributions rather than work hours is a great example.

One large Salesforce consulting company is in the process of rolling out a whole host of flexible work options. New policies cover everything from sabbaticals (any employee who has been at the company for 3 years may choose to take one month off unpaid), to half day Fridays (employees can choose to work longer hours during the week and take off Friday afternoons), to phased retirement or return (employees can gradually reduce or ramp their hours when retiring or returning to work). Some of these new options are new and some have been in place for a while, but the company is now making a concerted push to formalize and proactively communicate them.

They aren’t alone. There are other models that companies can explore to get ahead in today’s talent wars and to appeal to a more diverse workforce. Diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) is a huge area of investment for companies, but many leaders struggle to find, recruit and retain underrepresented groups when everyone is looking for the same profile. Flexible work models can help.

Part-time work

Probably the most common flexible work model is part-time work. While many companies already allow some employees to move from full-time to part-time work, it’s typically a reactive retention mechanism used as a tool to keep someone who is burnt out or to convince someone returning from medical or family leave to come back.
In today’s highly competitive talent environment, companies would be better off putting more structure and consistency around who can apply for part-time work and proactively offering it as a benefit.

In most countries, employees need to work a minimum number of hours to receive benefits so it might not be an option for everyone, but part-time work could be particularly appealing for working mothers who want to keep their career on track while also being there for their children, those with a disability who might need to balance medical appointments with work, or those who want to go back to school.

The 4-day work week

The 4-day work week is making a comeback, especially with new research coming out that shows a shorter work week can lead to greater employee productivity and well-being. Companies like Microsoft have been experimenting with the 4-day work week for years, and many see it as a way to reduce burnout and attrition.

The 4-day work week is making a comeback, especially with new research coming out that shows a shorter work week can lead to greater employee productivity and well-being.

Implementation of the 4-day work week can vary. Some companies expect employees to still work 40 hours a week, while others have cut workloads to 35 or 36 hours. Some companies use the model to recruit hard-to-find roles, while others make it an option for all employees. Some have instituted the policy permanently and others have offered it temporarily — often during summer months or after intense peaks of work. If there was ever a time to reduce burnout, now would be it!

Job sharing

Then there is job sharing — two workers sharing the responsibilities of one full-time position. For those old enough, this term might bring to mind the classic ‘80’s film “9 to 5”, but the model is actually alive and well in many sectors and regions around the world. When done right, job sharing has been proven not only to increase retention and job satisfaction, but also to increase diversity, innovation, productivity and performance. It shouldn’t be surprising – two brains is better than one. According to one researcher, job sharing also “fosters transparency, collaboration and knowledge sharing”, which is good for the success of any organization.

When done right, job sharing has been proven not only to increase retention and job satisfaction, but also to increase diversity, innovation, productivity and performance.

However, I have yet to speak to a firm that is actively offering job sharing to employees. And therein lies another opportunity to stand out in a highly competitive job market, especially when employees are burnt out and looking for more control over their time.

When I’ve asked leaders about whether this could work for their organization, the responses were varied. Some raised valid concerns about how this would impact budgets and benefits. Others questioned how they would manage customer coverage or team collaboration. Some were already thinking about it, but weren’t ready yet. However, there are organizations proving this model does work, and luckily, there are a growing number of consultancies like WorkMuse to help companies design and implement job sharing programs.

There are a few approaches to job sharing. Some job share pairs split coverage by day of the week with a day overlap and work on the same projects (called the twin model). Others work independently of each other, splitting coverage by task or skillset (called the island model).

There is also the apprenticeship model, where companies pair a senior employee who wants to ramp down hours to pursue other things (whether that’s retirement, going back to school or even starting a side gig that “scratches their itch”) with a more junior employee looking to gain experience. With today’s multigenerational workforce, and the pace of change in business and technology, this set up could greatly benefit not only the employee but the employer as well.

Where to start?

The goal with any flexible work policy should be to both meet employee needs while advancing outcomes for the business. Selecting which policies are right for your organization and implementing them in a way that takes into consideration tax and legal implications, regional and cultural nuances, and what’s good and fair for employees and customers takes both time and expertise.

I am not an expert in this area, but here are a few tips from those who are:

  • Start by asking employees what they value. Don’t assume. This can be done through existing employee engagement surveys, focus groups or skip levels. Pulse surveys done over time can be very helpful to understanding how needs change over time.
  • Experiment first. Before jumping into a mass rollout, conduct a pilot program with a small group or specific team. Or consider a trial period for the change. Use this to measure the effectiveness of the program and work out the kinks. Then you can adapt or scale as needed.
  • Find a partner to help. Don’t try to do this alone. There are experts out there who have helped organizations through change like this. Let them set you on the right path.
  • Communicate, communicate, communicate. No matter what model you choose, communication is key – between job sharers, between managers and employees, across teams and throughout the organization.

The most important thing you can do is to at least explore what flexible work models could work in your business now. COVID has given us a catalyst and a window of time to make real, lasting changes, and the labor crisis has increased the urgency of the situation. Those who simply revert back to the old way or just slightly evolve their workforce practices are going to be left short, especially during a time when companies need to prove they’re different.

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