Once upon a time, in a faraway place (OK, New York City), a new Account Director at a leading PR agency took a deep breath and walked into their manager’s office. After some quick banter and nervous shuffling, they asked the question. “Is it okay if I leave early today?” With a quick nod and affirmative response from said manager, the employee would utter a heartfelt ‘thank you,’ sigh from relief and then rush off to a) pick up their sick child; b) take their pet to the vet; c) head home to wait for a delivery in the six-hour window provided (what is that about?); or d) tend to any of the millions of other responsibilities that always fell to the bottom of the list. Does that sound like a make-believe story from another time? I hope so — and it should — because workplace flexibility today has moved way beyond an occasional ask for an afternoon off. Rather, it’s become a business imperative as worker well-being finally takes center stage.
The adage, “People don’t leave jobs, they leave their managers,” is true, but so is the growing trend of people leaving inflexible workplaces even if they like working for their managers. In a 2021 survey of HR managers, 70 percent reported flexibility as the most common reason for worker resignations. You’ll be hard-pressed to find a company without talent retention now listed as a top priority. For companies to stay competitive, they must create a working environment that is human-centered, flexible for the world we live in, and one that works for today’s employees.
Flexibility needs Purpose.
For some, flexibility today means having the option to work from home, to work off-hours, and to work in new ways made possible by the ever-growing list of platforms to connect us — whether that is Zoom, Skype, Microsoft Teams, Slack, Google Hangouts, or for the less fortunate, all of the above. For others, it means offering flexible solutions and new types of flexible spaces for those who relish being back in the office five days a week surrounded by co-workers and clients. And increasingly, flexibility means recognizing personal choices. Whether it’s wearing a favorite pair of high heels that hadn’t seen the sun for two years or wearing what one of my co-workers proudly refers to as “soft clothes,” companies are flexing to different preferences and creature comforts.
Fashion choices aside, workers want more flexibility around what they work on. Beyond clear career paths and chances for professional growth, the opportunity to work on projects that leverage their passions and interests is increasingly a must-have for employees. I know someone who recently resigned from a position with no job lined up after they were told they could work on a specific project they cared about, only for their employer to renege on that commitment. Likewise, the ability to turn down projects or clients based on our beliefs without fear is a flexibility employees increasingly prioritize. Last week, I went out to dinner with my son, who is just starting in the workforce, and he said he would never work in or for a specific industry that his company works with because of his own belief set. If he had to, he said he would walk, no questions asked (as his mom, I had lots of questions, but that’s for another time). Flexibility not only includes where and how we work, it includes choosing who is ultimately benefitting through our work.
Norms are no more, but we also know some principles remain true: Careers flourish through mentorship, training, and human engagement. Clients enjoy and benefit from face-to-face interaction with our people, and creativity thrives when we have real-world connections with each other. So, while we may never go back to the way we used to work, our professional lives are fuller when we come together with purpose and have meaningful human interactions.
Being flexible in the workforce also means recognizing and respecting what it means to be inflexible. Recently, a friend shared an example where a senior person at their company made an inappropriate comment over a Zoom call. The Slack channel used by the team (the under 30 set) quickly blew up and raised it immediately to the company leadership, who had to address the comment. The younger workers were morally offended and unwilling to stand by without it being addressed, and leadership had to be flexible enough to take a stand about something they might not have otherwise realized was problematic.
MORE FOR YOU
Flexibility Needs a Competitive Advantage.
The WFH Research project found that people valued flexibility as much as a 10 percent pay raise, thus making flexibility a competitive advantage — and a cost-effective one at that. For leaders, the first step to embracing flexibility is realizing it requires redefining norms and thinking outside the confines of their personal experience. The 9-to-5, face-time work culture is less required in a rapidly changing global economy that operates seamlessly across time zones and geographies.
According to Anthony Klotz, the professor who coined the Great Resignation, leaders must continue to think about flexibility in new ways, giving people more power over their schedules so “work will fit around our personal lives rather than our personal lives fitting around work.” The continuous evolution of flexibility and mutual trust between employer and employee is the way of the future and one of the most important ways for companies to stay competitive.
Businesses should be open to accommodating worker flexibility for more than just attracting and retaining talent. A Gartner 2021 Digital Worker Experience Survey found that offering employees flexible hours and less time commuting helped workers to be more productive. I’ve experienced this sentiment first-hand as a manager with teams located across the globe. The ability to “meet” quickly on Teams or text a question while online instead of scheduling formal meetings during traditional “work hours” or requiring frequent travel allows for quicker information sharing and decision-making. And with less commuting time every day, many employees can better use that time for 1-1 catchups, prioritizing, problem-solving, decompressing, laughing with their work bestie, or thinking time. Leaders should be proactive, research what people are looking for in a flexible workplace, and note how competitors approach it for their teams — a future-proofed business depends on it.
Flexibility Needs Active Dialogue
The thousands of work-from-home TikToks may have given us a good laugh at the absurdities of the ‘new normal’ (remember that awful phrase?). Still, they also give us a glimpse into a generation of workers feeling overworked, underappreciated, and burnt out by inflexible workplaces. A once-in-a-lifetime pandemic mixed with social and racial injustice, political division and unrest, and global economic uncertainty doesn’t come with an Employer Handbook. Even employers with the best flexible intentions should not go it alone when addressing these very real concerns and engage in dialogue with employees about what they want and need. Employees must also contribute to these conversations, working with leadership to acknowledge what is needed to perform their best.
While today’s workplace is informed by workers feeling more empowered to take advantage of flexible working arrangements, many consider quitting in lieu of asking for what they need. These conversations can be scary, but just like the anonymous Account Director in the story (OK, it was me), unless we ask for what we need, we may never get it. To start, ask yourself: If you could design the perfect job, have more flexibility built into your day, make one change toward being more productive and happier, what would that look like? Then meet with your manager (in person or on Teams, in heels or soft clothing), and work together to answer those questions.
Just as organizations must be willing to bend and offer flexibility, employees also have a responsibility to meet in the middle. The onus — and flexibility — falls to both parties if the arrangement is to be successful. This evolution is undoubtedly the way of the future, bringing mutual benefits for employees and the enterprise. Importantly centered on trust and open communication, a flexible workplace culture can be the silver lining to a period of forced transformation and an opportunity to reimagine work on our terms. Flexibility is indeed the F-word we should all use at work.