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What is a flexible workplace – and why should your company be one?

As companies move forward with post-pandemic planning, one thing is increasingly clear: we have now arrived in the era of the flexible workplace.

For many employers and employees alike, the national conversation around flexibility centers on remote work or hybrid work. This is because, according to many reports, more than half of U.S. employees in applicable roles plan to pursue permanent remote or hybrid work in the near future.

What is driving workplace flexibility?

For many employees, the COVID-19 pandemic and the ensuing widescale, prolonged work-from-home experiment demonstrated that they can be equally productive at home as in the office – in some cases, more so. Employees prefer no commute and, instead, have enjoyed greater work-life balance. They can spend more time with family, easily pursue outside hobbies and interests, and better fulfill caregiver or parent responsibilities.

The pandemic has also caused employees to reevaluate their priorities. Salary and benefits are still important, but higher numbers of U.S. employees cite their physical and mental health, wellbeing and work-life balance – directly associated with workplace flexibility – as their top concerns.

For many employees, there’s simply no going back to a pre-2020 world.

  • Younger workersMillennials and Generation Z – are beginning to dominate the workforce. Employees across the board, of all generations, are interested in more flexibility at work, but this is especially true with younger workers. They prioritize personal satisfaction and crave more balance in their lives. Generally, younger workers want the freedom to work where and when they want, as long as they get their work done. Notably, they tend to be early adopters of, and advocates for, the technology that makes flexible work arrangements possible. Furthermore, workers in this age group change jobs more frequently – and their tenure may be even shorter if they are unhappy with current work conditions.

Companies refusing to get on board with workplace flexibility may face challenges in recruiting and retaining top talent – especially in today’s fiercely competitive job market – compared to companies that are willing to adapt to new employee expectations.

If your company falls within one of the following camps, this discussion about workplace flexibility is for you.

  • Are you curious about introducing flexibility into your workplace, but aren’t sure where to start?
  • Does your company leadership cling to the traditional “on-site, full-time” workplace? Have you considered alternative ways to embrace flexibility to remain competitive?
  • Is it impossible for your business to support remote or hybrid work? Perhaps you have frontline-type employees, such as those working in retail or at manufacturing facilities, for whom remote or hybrid work is not feasible. Are you concerned that you are doomed to lose employees and there is nothing you can do about it?

What is a flexible workplace?

First, let’s tackle what flexible workplace actually means. Its scope is much broader than many of us think, extending far beyond just remote or hybrid work – although that is an important component.

A flexible workplace acknowledges that there is no one-size-fits-all work environment that makes everyone happy, engaged and productive. Therefore, a flexible workplace allows employees to have more freedom and autonomy in at least one of these three categories:

  • WHERE employees work
  • WHEN employees work
  • HOW employees work

Examples of WHERE flexibility:

  • Offer remote work.
  • Offer hybrid work.
  • Within offices, give employees the option to choose their preferred workspace – versus having an assigned, permanent desk – from among collaboration spaces, private rooms, casual lounges or outdoor areas. You could also implement co-working spaces or try hot desking.

Examples of WHEN flexibility:

  • Implement flexible scheduling, such as a shorter work week, seasonal hours or even permitting employees to customize their daily hours.
  • Consider job sharing, an arrangement in which two employees work part time and essentially “share” a single, full-time position. This is beneficial for employees who want to work but cannot commit to a full-time job, such as parents, caregivers or those with certain medical conditions.
  • Let employees take their lunch break when they want.
  • Provide increased quantities of paid time off (PTO) beyond the standard two weeks – or even consider unlimited PTO, if it works for your business and you have assessed the pros and cons.
  • Offer other types of paid leave that recognize employees’ other life obligations. Alternative types of leave could support caregivers, parents, volunteerism or continuing education.

Examples of HOW flexibility:

  • Let employees dictate their daily schedules, including planning their day and when they will tackle certain tasks, projects or processes.
  • Permit employees to communicate and collaborate with colleagues according to their preferences.
  • Relax the dress code. Evaluate whether it is truly necessary for employees to wear formal business attire every day as opposed to more casual attire – and why. (Of course, this does not apply to uniforms.)
  • Give employees a say in the decor and ergonomics of their workspace.
  • Let employees bring pets to work.
  • Allow employees to have their personal cell phone with them and access to the internet for personal use.

For each of these examples, employers should still set consistent rules, establish clear expectations and explain the business rationale for each decision made on workplace flexibility. After all, flexibility and autonomy do not equate with anarchy.

Benefits and challenges of a flexible workplace

Companies that embrace workplace flexibility can reap significant benefits, such as:

  • Greater employee autonomy improves confidence, motivation and resilience
  • Employees feel that their employers are listening to them and care, which translates into increased engagement and higher morale
  • Employees can work according to their preferences and needs, which can boost productivity and general happiness
  • A positive workplace culture that prizes respect, trust, empathy and work-life balance
  • Good reputation and word of mouth among employees and job candidates
  • Positive effect on recruiting and retention
  • Potential antidote to negative workplace trends seen during the pandemic (examples: employee burnout and the exodus of parents, particularly mothers, from the workforce, also known as the SHEcession)

A flexible workplace is a critical component of creating a workplace that employees never want to leave.

However, having a flexible workplace isn’t without challenges either.

  • If employees are not consistently in the same office together, it can take greater effort to build human connection and, as a result, maintain team cohesion and workplace culture. You will have to be intentional in fostering a sense of camaraderie and teamwork, and may have to be creative with team-building activities.
  • Especially with employees who are permanently remote – potentially even located a significant distance away – you will have to ensure that an employee’s lack of physical presence doesn’t result in less involvement and feelings of isolation. Employers cannot forget about out-of-office employees or show favoritism to in-office employees.
  • When colleagues cannot just walk down the hall and find someone at their desk, on-the-fly, real-time communication can be disrupted. However, managers and team members should know where other employees are and when they are available, regardless. Establish expectations around schedules and availability, keep work calendars updated and encourage employees to leverage communication platforms and practices that keep everyone connected.
  • Some managers who are accustomed to a traditional work environment will have to adapt to be effective in a flexible environment. This may involve additional manager training. When leaders cannot watch over their employees all day and know exactly what they are doing at every moment, they must shift their focus to managing results and outcomes. Major questions should be:
  • Is the employee’s work getting done on time and in accordance with quality standards?
  • Is this employee meeting their personal goals that we set weekly, quarterly or annually?
  • Does the employee have a positive impact on their team and company?

Aspire to an uplifting and engaging workplace, not one in which managers feel frustrated over misguided expectations and employees feel smothered.

  • Some employees, especially remote or hybrid employees, may need additional training about how to be an effective worker in a flexible environment.
  • With flexibility comes the potential for abuse by employees. You must have clear, written policies in place so there is no mystery about the rules and when they apply. When negative patterns of behavior emerge and cause problems, be prepared to discuss problems with employees and have a disciplinary policy in case.

Basic steps to create a flexible workplace

1. Review and reassess current workplace rules and policies

As you examine what your workplace currently allows, evaluate which rules seem arbitrary.

Ask yourself:

  • Do your rules serve a clear, critical business need?
  • Do your rules serve employees well?
  • How can you improve employees’ work environment?
  • How can you give employees more autonomy?
  • Is there a better way to get work done that makes life easier for them?

2. Talk to your employees

You cannot take truly meaningful, effective action if you don’t know what your employees consider important. Find out what they value and want in their workplace.

For most companies, the easiest, most efficient option will be to survey employees. Ask what they like and dislike about their workplace. What should the company start doing, stop doing and continue doing?

Of course, it is not realistic to assume that all feedback can be accepted and implemented. However, if you are going to survey employees, be prepared to explain to them why you did not implement certain feedback. Cite business reasons when doing so. Otherwise, employees will feel ignored, become discouraged and hesitate to participate in future surveys.

3. Assess what works for your business

Armed with your own research and the results from employee surveys, figure out where win-wins potentially exist for both employees and your business. Having a flexible workplace is about striking a balance between employee wants and business demands.

4. Document and communicate all changes in rules and policies

Add new rules and policies to your employee handbook surrounding a flexibility initiative. You don’t want to create new layers of complexity or inflexibility, but you need basic, consistent parameters. You have to protect your business in case an employee abuses new policies or claims unfair treatment.

Announce all changes to your workforce, so everyone is aware. Leverage different communication channels, including townhall-style meetings and email. This is your chance to introduce the new policy, generate enthusiasm around the change, establish expectations and answer questions.

5. Enable feedback

Making your workplace more flexible isn’t a one-and-done change. Have a feedback mechanism in place so you can learn what is and is not working for employees, and respond accordingly. This is how your organization maintains its morale and engagement internally, and a good reputation externally.

Summing it all up

There’s no going back – the majority of employees clearly want a more flexible workplace and greater autonomy over their work day. Ignore this major shift underway, and you’ll risk significant recruiting and retention problems. However, don’t fall into the trap of thinking flexibility is only about remote or hybrid work – though that is a big, highly desirable piece of it.

If your workplace cannot accommodate remote or hybrid work, there are many other ways to embrace flexibility and autonomy, and improve working conditions for employees. As a result, you can raise morale and engagement, and more easily entice employees to stay with your company.

Going forward, a flexible workplace will be a critical ingredient for and indicator of a positive workplace culture. To learn more about what makes a great culture, download our free magazine: The Insperity guide to company culture.