It’s not about the days

Early on in the pandemic, when the idea of hybrid work began to emerge, the conversation was all about the days. The ratio between office and remote.  For a short while it seemed that we’d settle at 3/2.  A concession from leaders that not all work needed to take place in the workplace, and that employees could work from home for some of the time.

As time went on, this idea seemed a little less settled after all.  Surveys showed that employees wanted more.  Pre-pandemic, when the adoption of flexible working was described as glacial and managers repeatedly turned down requests for homeworking in favour of face to face supervision, two days a week at home would have been a dream scenario for many employees.  But not now. 

Employees want more remote time.  They have resisted the return to work.  Sometimes by challenging their employer, sometimes by simply not doing so despite company demands, and sometimes by voting with their feet.  It seems that employees want to attend the workplace – just not all that often and certainly not as often as their bosses want them to.

Even Apple, a desirable employer to many, found themselves on the end of an employee revolt (and resignations) when they declared a three day office week with designated days. They have relented a little – but not enough for some.  Now you still need to come in three days a week, but (whoo hoo) employees get to choose one of them!

Here’s the thing. If you are focusing on how many days employees should be spending in the office, you are focusing on the wrong things.  If you are only doing location flex (hybrid) then you are missing part of the puzzle.  If you are mandating days and office time (unless you have an evidence based reason that is going to fly with your workforce rather than a vague ‘we think it is good for culture) then you failing to understand the reason that people are demanding flexible forms of work. 

There’s another problem with the fixed days approach. It assumes one size will fit all. In anything but the smallest and simplest organisation this will not hold true. Complex situations (and this whole hybrid thing is complex) cannot be addressed with easy responses. The more different roles and functions are involved, the larger the organisation or the more complex, the more hybrid solutions need to adapt to take into the context.

Above all, ‘I want to work from home’ means more than what it suggests on the surface.  For many, it really means ‘I want a different life’.  Employees want autonomy – as much as they can get.  They want time flexibility too, with many rating this just as important as location flex. They want more meaning and purpose. They want more time. They want choice.

If all you do is allow employees limited flexibility, then you will only reap limited benefits.  Mandating days, especially without a clear rationale, is just faux flexibility.  And this isn’t going to satisfy the wants of top talent. We need to move beyond this debate, and look broader, more holistically. We need to experiment and learn, respond and adapt to this shifting situation.

There is more than one answer to these questions.

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