Flexible working post Covid-19 part 1: the flexibility spectrum

This is the first in a series of blog posts about flexible working post Covid-19.  We all know that employees want to retain elements of flexible working (homeworking in particular) in the future.  The idea of a hybrid or blended approach is popular; employees spending some of their working time at home and some in the office, ideally with personal autonomy around how this works in practice.  

Today, many knowledge workers are still working from home and will continue to be for some months to come.  When this whole mess is finally over there will be two challenges for business.  First of all, how do we set up these new way of working?  Secondly, once they are in place, how do we make a more flexible future work in practice, ensuring effective management, engagement, communication, creativity and team working?

There are a wide range of considerations issues to work through – but the first decision for an organisation is deciding exactly where they want to be on the flexibility spectrum. 

Imagine a straight line, drawn on a page.

At one end is a formal flexible working policy setting out how flexibility will be managed.  At the other, total employee empowerment on working patterns. 

Let’s start with the formal stuff.  Many flexible working policies do nothing more than state the law. 26 weeks to make a request.  Three months to respond (including an appeal where one is offered).  One request in a rolling 12 month period.  And so on.  Sometimes there is a list of the different types of flexible working available.  Pretty much always the list of reasons a request can be turned down. Often these policies are accompanied by forms to complete, for the employee who wishes to make a request.

This approach has been around for years, but rarely amounted to true flexibility for employees.  Prior to Covid-19 the pace of flexible working adoption in the UK was described as glacial.  There were great companies doing great things around flex – but they remained in the minority.  The problem with formal flex is…. It just isn’t that flexible.  It is still process driven, manager controlled, operating within a structure that has time and hours worked at the centre. 

If post Covid-19, all organisations do is follow this same approach, with perhaps a few tweaks or an extra category or two, real change will not result.  Employees will not get the new deal that they crave.  These organisations run a very real risk that they will lose their talent to others who have taken a bolder step.

Let’s turn to the other end of the spectrum.  There, we see total empowerment.  Employees with complete freedom to choose when and where they work as long as they fulfil their job description.  What is sometimes described as a Results Only Working Environment, in which employees are judged only on their achievement and contribution.  There is no ‘can I work from home tomorrow please’, revised terms and conditions, forms to complete. There is no parent / child dynamic. 

This is the place of the truly brave.  For many, when they hear of such working environments, their first thought is ‘that wouldn’t work around here’.  For those who are curious to learn more, I recommend reading ‘A Year Without Pants’ by Scott Berkun and ‘Work Sucks and How to Fix’ It by Cali Ressler and Jody Thompson.  The total empowerment approach cannot of course work everywhere; some work demands a physical presence or a specific time window. But it is more possible than many people believe.  A year ago if we’d asked the same people whether their organisations could be run remotely, the same people would have said no.  And yet here we are.

The first decision for any organisation to make is this: where do you want to be on the flexibility spectrum?  How ambitious are you going to be?  How much change will you make?

Everything else flows from there. 

What policy you need, what systems, manager training and accompanying structures.  How to performance manage, reward and recognise, collaborate and create. 

There are some organisations who will be satisfied to stay at the formal end. They will keep their policies, and their own particular version of the new normal might amount to allowing employees to make a request for the occasional work from home day.  Others may be wondering why they need that corporate, city centre head office and be thinking about a remote first future.

From this decision, we can decide what comes next, what needs to be in place.  In the next blog post in this series I will be exploring the necessary policy and principles to support flexible, blended work.  

But for now, back to that imaginary line.  Where will you stand?

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