Wake Up, Leaders! Flexibility Is Happening, and It’s Time to Get Strategic

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“What if no one is around to do the work? And how do we maintain all of the good aspects of our culture that happen when we work together in the same place at the same time?”

These are the two main questions leaders ask about building a high-performance flexible work culture. What they’re really saying is, “Is this going to be a flexible work free-for-all?” No. If done correctly, it’s the complete opposite.

When flexibility in the way work is done is woven deliberately into an organization’s DNA, it’s targeted rather than simply “happening” as it is now.  It’s strategic and coordinated.  Both the business and its people benefit in tangible, specific ways.

Ironically, because leaders have avoided being intentional about it, work-life flexibility could be described as the free-for-all they fear right now.

According to our most recent telephone survey of a national probability sample of full-time U.S. workers conducted by ORC International:

  • 96% said they had some degree of work-life flexibility, defined as “having the flexibility in when, where and how you work that allows you to flexibly allocate time and energy between your work life and personal life.” This could be anything from “I can leave 15 minutes early for my son’s soccer game” to “I do all of my work from a remote location.” The point is that almost all of us have some amount of wiggle room.
  • 33% indicated they do most of their work from a remote location not on their employer’s site. Whether that’s 51% or 100% of their work, a sizable portion of the workforce doesn’t show up at the same physical location every day to do their jobs. And, yes, that is a representative sample of people who work full-time for an employer. Not freelancers or project-based workers.
  • But a majority, 52%, of full-time workers said they received NO training or guidance on how to use that work-life flexibility well. In other words, they are flying by the seat of their pants.
  • And, only 56% would describe their employer’s commitment to work-life flexibility as “strong.”

Do those numbers surprise you? The gap between what’s actually happening and the training received, coupled with the ambiguity related to employer commitment, illustrates a “see no evil, hear no evil, speak no evil” approach to flexibility in many organizations.

You might say, “yes, but we have a formal telework policy.” Policies provide the wrong kind of structure.  They don’t help:

  • Employees. Formal policies don’t allow employees to adapt the way they get their job done and manage their lives as productively and effectively as possible.  Formal policies don’t account for the type of flexibility most people want and need, which is the ability to make small, informal shifts in when, where and how work is done as realities on the job and in life change.
  • Teams. Policies don’t support the coordination of the individual flexibility goals of each team member so the work gets done efficiently.
  • Managers. Policies don’t allow managers to work with their teams and recalibrate the flexibility within the group, as needed, to maintain the culture and meet the always-changing needs of the business and employees.

A high-performance flexible work culture achieves all of the above, and more, because it’s built on a set of core principles, not rigid, one-size-fits-all rules or policies. These principles are translated into action by a framework of tools, mindset shifts and behavior changes that individuals, teams and managers adopt together.

As I noted, however, in my most recent LinkedIn post, “Thank Millennials for Pushing Work Culture Toward True Flexibility,” shifting mindsets, changing behaviors and learning to use new tools across an organization requires a commitment of time, people and money that most organizations are not willing to make.

If you’re looking for a place to start, here’s what I recommend:

  • Take a pulse check of the work-life flexibility reality in your organization. What’s actually happening in the trenches with both small, informal flexible work shifts and more formal plans? (Guarantee something will be surprise you).
  • Clarify how the flexibility that already exists has helped achieve the goals of your organization. Have you attracted and retained valuable talent you would have otherwise lost? Are people more productive? Did you continue to operate during bad weather? Gather the stories. What can you learn from the successes and failures?
  • Envision what more could be done if work flexibility became a coordinated, strategic part of the cultural DNA, or “how we work here.” Could it help you grow (e.g. seed new markets without investing in real estate overhead)? Could you tap into valuable talent resources (e.g. on-demand, project-based workers or employees from other locations)? Could it help you save money (e.g. increase participation in wellness activities)?
  • Having made the case, clarify your commitment and invest the resources to train your people at all levels. Give people the skills and tools to leverage the work flexibility that makes sense for their jobs to fit work and life together. Show them how to use conversations, tools and technology to coordinate efficiently and effectively with each other. And, finally, help them recalibrate, individually and as a team, as work and personal realities shift and change.

You can put your hands over your ears and repeat “la, la, la, la”, but that won’t avoid the flexible work free-for-all leaders fear.  Instead, acknowledge reality and take the steps that move the culture toward a more flexible, transparent and productive way to work.

I invite you to connect with me on Twitter @caliyost and on Facebook.