The Future Of Work Is… Flexibility
- February 19, 2023
The world of work is still undergoing seismic changes – in part due to the long-tail impact of the 2020/21 pandemic, as well as in response to more recent influences like the economic crisis in the UK and overseas. Legacy business practices have been put to the test, and whilst digital transformation has continued to accelerate at breakneck speed, some businesses are only now stopping to catch their breath and take stock.
One topic that continues to make headlines globally however is around ‘flexibility’ – still the most requested ‘benefit’ by job seekers who are rejecting a return to a hustle culture and supposed burnout.
The latest Work Trend Index Report by Microsoft, published late last year spotlights the topic, and claims that even though we are now many months into hybrid work, not everyone agrees on how it’s going. And whilst employees are (on the whole) embracing greater flexibility and the benefits that come with that, business leaders are having to find the balance between remaining competitive as an employer, with rising inflation, budgetary constraints, and a dispersed workforce.
Will we see a mass return to the office?
A recent survey by Slack stated that only 12% of people would actively choose to return to an office setting on a full-time basis. Yet, 50% of leaders are ‘demanding’ employees return to the fold – an approach that experts are saying could have serious ramifications for businesses that don’t offer some level of flexibility; instead impacting retention and creating flight risks that companies can ill-afford in the current market.
Nevertheless, global giants at Disney, Tesla, and Goldman Sachs have hit the headlines for vocally turning their back on remote or even hybrid working arrangements – instead insisting employees benefit from face-to-face contact with their peers, especially when it comes to collaboration and creativity.
This post-pandemic push to get people back into the office has also been adopted by other global businesses including Starbucks, Twitter, and KMPG. Yet, the supposed advantages of hybrid working arrangements continue to be analysed and pored over, with indications that this working arrangement can positively impact work-life balance, and productivity, mitigate burnout, and improve personal well-being.
For the time being it seems, there is an increasing mismatch between what employees want, and what employers are prepared to offer.
Is hybrid here to stay?
There is no doubt that the increase in remote, hybrid, and flexible working patterns has necessitated a shift in how companies operate. From having to invest in technology to support a separated workforce to contemplating (and analysing) the subsequent impact on things like collaboration, productivity, staff engagement, and culture. The road, whilst already well-trodden, is still relatively unknown as many still consider the permanency of such working arrangements.
Paul Lewis (CEO of job advertising company, Adzuna) states in a recent article in Forbes, that employers are becoming more polarised in their approach to flexible working. And whilst there is certainly one camp that has reversed any such arrangement at full throttle, others continue to see the benefit of offering flexibility (be that remote or hybrid) as a tactic to attract new (and much-needed) talent.
The hybrid dichotomy
There are evidently both challenges and opportunities of hybrid working that professional services continue to pore over as we enter a new year, not least against a backdrop of talent and skill shortages impacting general recruitment and retention of staff.
According to research by global analytic consultants, Gallup, benefits include more autonomy, less burnout, higher productivity, and a perceived improvement in work-life balance. Yet, the research also highlighted that employees noted hybrid arrangements led to decreased collaboration, access to resources, disruption to processes, and less connection to the business ‘culture’.
It is certainly an ongoing challenge for businesses to balance employee interests against general business performance – remembering as always, the needs of the end customer and if those continue to be met as the workplace continues to evolve.
The most recent Work Trend Index Report by Microsoft highlights research where over 20,000 people in 11 countries were interviewed and analysed alongside labour market trends. The key findings (presented last September), and subsequent recommendations to business leaders were:
‘End productivity paranoia’
- Whilst managers may be worried about the general productivity of employees, not in the office, 87% reported that they are more productive. This is then backed up with Microsoft 365 data and productivity signals including meeting invites, multi-tasking (sending emails in meetings), and tracked activity.
- Yet, as some businesses install tracking technology to measure productivity signals themselves, many employees are left feeling like they aren’t being trusted. This can, according to the report, then lead to digital overwhelm where employees feel the need to ‘prove’ they are working…possibly out of normal work hours.
‘Embrace the fact that people come in for other people’
- Research at this juncture indicates that the desire to return to the office environment, even on a hybrid basis, is down to people missing the social interaction and connection with their peers. Therefore ‘rebuilding social capital can be a powerful lever for bringing people back to the office’.
- Digital communication tools are as important as ever to allow employees to connect with each other and with the business leaders.
‘Re-recruit your employees’
- Despite the choppy waters of the economic and political landscape that arguably make job seekers more cautious, employers should still be mindful of staff retention…even if they aren’t actively recruiting or on a growth trajectory themselves.
- There should therefore be a focus on re-energising and re-engaging existing staff members who according to the research are still ‘turning to job-hopping, the creator economy, side hustles, and entrepreneurship to achieve their career goals’.
- This includes providing genuine growth and career progression opportunities, training, and development support
Let’s Talk About Flex
In our blog 12 months ago, we looked at definitions of the various flexible working models at the time – centred around what was coined ‘home, hybrid, or hub (office)’. And, whilst these are still as relevant today, the models themselves continue to evolve and adapt – both to the needs and desires of employers and employees and also in relation to external factors and the socio-economic landscape.
Other nuances include:
- the employee has the freedom to pick exactly where and when they work….not limited necessarily to the home or the office
- employee spends the majority of time in the office, and less remotely
- employee spends the majority of time working remotely, and less in the office
- the employee has a set working pattern for days in the office and days at home/remotely
- depending on the needs of the business this may include full-time hours worked across a shorter amount of days e.g nine longer days instead of ten – giving employees flexibility without losing capacity
- the employee has to work an agreed amount of time over the year, but (aside from core hours) has flexibility around when they work based on extra demand
As well as the ongoing rumblings around flexi-, hybrid-, agile-, and remote-working, there is also a renewed focus on the ‘4-day week’ – not least because of the pilot programme that launched in the UK last year, which has just published its initial results (based on data from US, Australian, and Irish businesses in the first phase of the trial).
The programme, the brainchild of the not-for-profit ‘4 Day Week Global’ founded by Andrew Barnes and Charlotte Lockhart, advocates investment in the transition to reducing working hours; a ‘business improvement strategy centred on working smarter rather than longer’, and investing in the wellbeing of a business’s employees. Notably, the trial is based on a so-called ‘100-80-100 model’ = ‘100% of the pay, 80% of the time, but critically in exchange for 100% of the productivity’.
The notion of a shorter week had already been gaining traction in recent years, and as the pandemic forced through many changes in the workplace, a more formal approach was taken in 2022 with the world’s first coordinated trial and large-scale independent research into the impacts of a 4 day week.
The results, published last November, hail the pilot a resounding success on nearly all fronts with participating businesses reporting increased revenue, reduced absenteeism and resignations as well as a general increase in staff engagement and satisfaction in their roles. None of the businesses who took part in the trial will return to a 5-day week.
With pilots now taking place across the globe including the UK, South Africa, and Canada, it certainly seems many businesses are at least open to the idea of a seismic shift to the working week as we know it – but only, of course, if the numbers stack up.
The pandemic of 2020/21 certainly accelerated substantial changes to working patterns and behaviours – shaking up when, where, and how individuals operated. It seems that in this sense, we are still in somewhat of a state of flux as businesses contend with economic instability, rising costs, declining staff retention, and a skills shortage impacting recruitment.
Yet the cards, arguably, are still being held by employees who remain resolute that flexibility (in whatever form) is a leading factor in decisions around if they stay, or if they go (and indeed, where they go next).
It is certainly true that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for employers as they continue to navigate these choppy waters, yet the narrative (at the moment at least) certainly predicts that flexibility isn’t a fad…rather, it’s the future.
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