Taking flexible work from good to great

Diane Gayeski
Diane Gayeski

While the first few weeks of the mandatory work-from-home experience were quite chaotic, a number of surveys now show that most employees want to work at home a few days a week, and they’d actually think seriously about quitting if not given this option. 

For leaders, this can seem like a daunting prospect. The office has played a starring role in our work lives for as long as we can remember. But just because something is familiar does not mean it’s the best path forward. 

Flexible work may have been pushed on us due to a global crisis but there’s a reason why there is so much resistance to going back to old work models. 

The office model was broken. Now, we have a chance to create something new. 

Let’s look at what worked, what didn’t and what the path forward should look like.

What parts of flexible work, worked?

People tend to be more productive when they can choose their work schedule, and they are healthier when they can move around throughout the day based on the task at hand, a concept called activity based working.  

Meetings via video conference also have advantages: attendees and presentation materials can be seen and heard clearly, and participants can use the chat box or rating/voting features which increases engagement and efficiency. Sessions can also be easily recorded for people who can’t attend or who want to review what was said, and automatic captioning means that complete notes are taken and it’s more accessible to those with hearing disabilities.  

Many teams saw the need for more coordination and collaboration, and platforms like Slack, Microsoft Teams, Google Workspace  and Lucidspark’s digital whiteboard were implemented more widely. Project management, documentation, and brainstorming are enhanced with these tools, whether working in person or in flexible modes.

To avoid “Zoom fatigue”, meeting organizers learned to post documents and presentation decks in a shared space to be reviewed beforehand so that meeting time is used only for discussion and decision-making.

This was long overdue - as it was in education where for years, experts had recommended the flipped classroom model. Fixing or eliminating unproductive meetings is a huge productivity boost:  It’s estimated that 11 million meetings happen in the US every day and that $37 million is lost in unproductive meetings.

McKinsey did a study internationally of 2,000 tasks and 800 jobs jobs and found that jobs held by skilled workers who mostly do information-sharing or analysis such as finance, business services, IT, and some aspects of education/training could be done just as well remotely, thereby giving companies advantages such as:

  • Not limiting your talent pool to those who can physically come to your workplace, drawing from employees and/or freelancers and contractors worldwide to build a “dream team” for each project
  • Reducing the cost of office real estate and energy and helping meet sustainability goals by reducing commuting and use of paper products, water, etc
  • Creating opportunities for individuals who could otherwise not work in a typical 9-5 office setting such as those with long-term health challenges, disabilities, or family responsibilities that require more flexible work hours 

What were the challenges of flexible work?

The tasks that require relationship-building like counseling, sales, and innovative problem-solving are challenging in remote environments, and obviously hands-on work such as manufacturing, transportation, and much of healthcare and personal services can only be done face-to-face.  

But beyond this, there are some typical challenges that employees face when working remotely including feeling isolated, being distracted by the home or other remote environment, and not being able to ‘unplug’.  Much of remote communication is low bandwidth as compared with face-to-face meetings- in email or chat you obviously miss facial expressions and tone of voice ,and even with Zoom meetings, the ability to concentrate on all those “Hollywood Squares” faces is very difficult.

Some researchers feel that the lack of unplanned interactions in the office might hinder innovation and personal growth. It’s certainly true that a spontaneous conversation with  a colleague often leads to new insights, and that being around more experienced co-workers and informally observing them can be an important form of mentoring.  

In situations where not only the place changed, but individuals’ schedules of work were unpredictable, it became more difficult to pull together meetings or to know when co-workers were available.  

Meetings tended to include more people since they weren’t limited by conference room capacities or locations, so people felt like they spent all day sitting in one place on Zoom and had no time for their individual tasks. Remote work also makes some managers nervous because they can’t physically monitor their subordinates.

Re-imagining employee experience in a flexible world 

Given what we’ve learned from this grand experiment of the pandemic, we can start with a blank slate and design an engaging, high-performance, and human-centered workplace.  Here are some building blocks that we can put together in flexible ways:

1. Individual work should be done at a time and place that best suits each employee whether it’s early in the morning at a coffee shop or in the office with a fixed schedule away from the distractions of home. 

2. Meetings should be designed in a “flipped” mode with information sharing done asynchronously beforehand, and the synchronous part (whether in-person, remote or flexible) focusing on discussion and decision-making.

3. For team projects, individual tasks should be done asynchronously to provide maximum flexibility and also to facilitate work hand-offs over locations and times that increase the speed of completion.  Use project management tools to track the status of interim deliverables and clearly communicate individuals’ responsibilities.  Create standard digital spaces and conventions for naming, storing, and sharing documents. 

4. For the parts of team projects that are better done in person, create schedules and spaces that maximize creativity and productivity. For example, Google allows teams to request and design a space that they can call their own for a period of time.

5. Project kick-offs and successful completions should be designed as carefully as you’d plan a big wedding. The sequence of activities should spark enthusiasm, but also have an ebb and flow of energy and emotion so that people are not exhausted. The space has to be inspiring and comfortable, keeping in mind that the most  important goal is developing trust and social bonds.  

6. Develop mechanisms for employees to set their own goals, track their progress, and celebrate achievements, just like we do on our fitness trackers. Feedback, gentle nudges, and activity group challenges are all very effective and empowering elements to add gamification to the EX.  Studies have shown that people who were able to set their own goals reported less emotional exhaustion and exhibited more citizenship behaviors -going beyond one’s work responsibilities to help the organization.

7. Deliberately design time and strategies focused on employee development and intentional innovation.  What might have been missed with the serendipitous encounters that spurred new ideas and provided mentoring in the office environment can be replaced by scheduling virtual lunch groups or coffee chats, conducting frequent short online brainstorming exercises, or through virtual “field trips” to visit other divisions or locations to swap stories, discuss challenges, and build shared partnerships.

Investments in employee experience= company valuation

The investments you make in employee experience are more important than ever - in fact, they are in the spotlight if you’re a public company.  

The U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission introduced new disclosure requirements in August 2020 requiring that annual and quarterly reports include insight into human capital strategies such as: 

  • Talent planning
  • Learning and innovation
  • Employee experience
  • Work environment

Market analysts and stockholders will use these metrics to evaluate whether a company  is positioned to meet emerging business challenges.

Don’t miss this rare opportunity to do a total remodel of what great work looks like for your organization. Leverage the tools and experience of companies like Robin to manage the larger set of choices that you’ll now be able to provide in terms of where and when and how your employees will perform at their best.

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