Posted: 07 Jul. 2022 14 min. read

How to make work flexibility more flexible

Navigating the challenges of a flexible workforce

In April, we convened senior leaders from 13 Technology, Media, and Telecommunications (TMT) companies for part five of the Future of the Workplace Crowdsourcing series to share their perspectives on the implications of organizations’ approach to the talent experience in the hybrid work environment. During this session, we found:

  • Employees are demanding flexible ways of working 
  • Despite the advantages of flexible work, one challenge is persistent: Catering to the flexible demands of employees while enforcing a universal flexible work policy across the organization
  • As the enforcement of flexible work policies are typically left up to the manager, managers are struggling to navigate the myriad of responsibilities that comes with being a manger in a flexible work environment

Flexible ways of working is an expectation from your workforce

Fourty six percent of respondents cited that the need for flexibility has been the greatest shift in employee sentiment from the beginning of the pandemic until now. From fully remote during the first wave of COVID-19 to the more recent transition to hybrid, employees have grown accustomed to benefits that exist outside the traditional “9-5” and their new ways of working. Our “new normal” has dissolved the rigid “9-5” in the eyes of employees and introduced flexible work as a sustainable solution to enhance the overall employee experience.

Flexible work empowers employees to choose when (i.e., what hours and days an employee works) and where (i.e., remote, hybrid, virtual, in-office) they work. This gives employees the autonomy to do their work while also empowering them to prioritize their personal needs, such as ending the day at 4:00 PM to pick up their child at school or taking a mid-morning break for therapy. Airbnb is one of several leading TMT organizations transitioning to a flexible model and they have prioritized employees’ desire for flexible work. Airbnb’s CEO Brian Chesky’s official announcement is proof of just that; declaring that all Airbnb employees will have the ability to work from home, the office, or anywhere around the world, while “collaborating in a highly coordinated way, and experiencing the in-person connection that makes Airbnb special.” Conversely, Apple is amongst several organizations experiencing pushback from employees to abandon its structured hybrid policy (three fixed days in the office and two work-from-home days) and instead adopt a flexible model where employees can decide with their teams and manager what work arrangement works best for them.

Flexible work is not just an added benefit or “nice to have” for employees, but rather an imperative when selecting a place of work.  After the recent Omicron spike, employees questioned whether the value of being “in-office” truly outweighed the cost of “Return to Office.” According to a 2021 report by the U.S. Census Bureau, the average one-way commute to the U.S. had increased to a record high of 27.6 minutes in 2019. Long commute times, record-high gas prices ($4.33 a gallon), and inflation woes make it difficult for organizations to craft a strong case in favor of bringing back their workforce. On top of that, employees have been able to cultivate at-home office environments that best suit their needs, juxtaposing rigid workplace constraints, such as specific seating arrangements and strict dress codes.

In addition to the exponential challenges of “Return to Office,” employees view flexible work as a means to reduce burnout and increase sustainability. Mental health was top of mind for organizations during the pandemic, as we saw organizations offer free counseling sessions, mental health subsidies, and other resources. However, entering the post-pandemic era employees demand much more than just resources and are putting their well-being first by seeking out opportunities that offer flexible ways of working. If organizations do not respond to the rising cost of “Return to Office” by adopting a flexible model, they risk losing their workforce.

Despite the advantages of the flexible work, one challenge is persistent: balancing the principles of flexible work while enforcing a structured flexible work policy

Despite the many advantages of flexible work, there is a tension between formal organizational flexible work policies and what is truly being executed in the day-to-day. While 92% of the surveyed leading TMT organizations have implemented a formal flexible work model, 50% of such organizations agree there is tension between formal flexible work policies and “norms” expected by employees. In fact, a Microsoft study found that “More than a third of hybrid employees say their biggest challenge is knowing when and why to come to the office, but very few companies (28%) have established team agreements to define new norms.” Balancing employees’ ability to control where and when they work, while also cultivating a consistently positive experience across the organization, is a challenge. Employers who want to win in today’s hypercompetitive market must “deeply understand their workers, articulate who they are and declare what they stand for as employers, and then live up to those expectations."

When setting an organization-wide flexible work policy, a major consideration is the purpose and logistics of on-site presence. Organizations must understand local and state legislation to decide whether employees can designate their work location, as well as the type of role an employee is in, as many tech jobs cannot easily transition to a flexible model. Technical roles, such as App Store reviewers that are looking at unreleased codes or chip architects in a factory, and even universal non-technical roles, such as security workers and support staff, cannot easily “flex” where they work because their job requirements demand them to be in-person. In situations where a role cannot truly flex when, where, and how they work, the organization must get creative in establishing flexibility in other ways.  Employers should drive their approach with human-centered design: 1) understand employees’ emotion-based sentiment, 2) identify patterns in the way they’re feeling, and 3) translate data into an equity-based strategy.

The inconsistent execution of flexible work policies, such as the extent to which employee choice is involved in when and how often to come to the office, has employees struggling with the same issues that persisted with hybrid work.  For example, 43% of remote workers say they do not feel included in meetings, yet only 27% of companies have created new hybrid meeting etiquette to ensure inclusion and engagement. Moreover, organizations are still struggling to cultivate equal opportunities for employees who do not work in the office, as a Politico study found that “there is a promotion penalty for people who work off site.” Employees have noted that their organization’s flexible model has been enforced inconsistently across teams; a respondent in our survey spoke to this by citing that there has been “inconsistent talent management & expectations of hybrid/virtual work in practice.” As most organizations are looking to their managers to make flexible work decisions for their employees, it has fallen on managers to set the behaviors, norms, and ways of working for their team, while also alleviating the aforementioned challenges of a flexible model.

Support your managers as they bear the burden of a flexible workforce

As organizations continue to hire at a rapid pace, with 100% of organizations hiring up to 50% of their workforce in the past 12 months, navigating flexible work policies while promoting feelings of inclusion and belonging is quite the challenge for managers – for new managers, this challenge is exponential.

Seventy one percent of organizations we surveyed cited that their flexible work norms are team-specific and communicated by the manager. Amazon is one of many organizations giving managers the responsibility to dictate their team’s level of flexibility. Although Amazon originally suggested its employees to be in the office at least three days a week, they recently revised their policy to enable individual teams to decide how much time is needed at the office. Such as in the case of Amazon, managers are no longer solely responsible for overseeing tasks and performance but are now expected to play the numerous roles needed to manage a team in a flexible work environment.

According to HBR’s latest “Managers Can’t Do It All,” the role of the manager has recently experienced a shift in power, skills, and structure; managers are now expected to “think about making teams successful,” “coach performance,” and “lead in more-fluid environments.” To respond to these newfound expectations, managers are finding themselves having to exhibit new capabilities to sustain and retain their employees. Deloitte’s latest research on the role of the manager in the hybrid workplace found that managers need to demonstrate specific capabilities, including leading with empathy, supporting social flexibility, enabling consistent values, and sustaining productivity. In practice this may look like hosting well-being events, writing a team charter to establish team flexible work norms, and conducting pulse surveys to continuously implement team feedback.

Due to diverse employee preferences, managers are struggling to establish flexible team norms in a way that balances employees’ desires while also cultivating a structured approach to flexible work across the team. In fact, in a recent Gartner survey, in which 75 HR leaders were asked how their managers were faring, 68% responded that their managers were overwhelmed, and only 14% of those companies had taken steps to alleviate such burdens. Due to the heightened tension between work-related responsibilities (e.g., delivering business outcomes) and people-related responsibilities (e.g., supporting employee skill and career development) in a flexible work environment, some may argue that the role of the manager can be divided into two roles: “Leader of Work” and “Leader of People.” Telstra, an Australian telecommunications company, rolled out this change to its organization to “make the company for customer-focused, fast-paced, and agile.” Not only does this model offer a potential solution to alleviate the burden on managers, it also enables traditionally technical roles, such as Engineers, to have two distinct resources: a project leader and a coach.

Leading TMT organizations acknowledge the critical role of the manger and offer opportunities for upskilling and development to prepare managers to navigate the world of flexible work. Amongst the leading TMT organizations we surveyed, 85% are offering well-being training for managers and 92% are equipping their managers on flexibility and work norms. To do flexible work “right,” it is critical to equip your managers with the right tools and resources, as well as continuously measure the extent to which these enablers provide value for managers. Doing so will enable managers to be enactors of a flexible culture that provides a consistently positive experience for all employees.

Getting flexibility “right"

If organizations do not do flexibility “right,” they risk their workforce. A recent study found that 72% of workers who weren’t satisfied with their level of flexibility are likely to seek out a new opportunity in the next year. The Great Reshuffle is not just applicable to younger employees and new hires. The main growth in quit rates is now coming from older, more tenured workers, as they are “searching for less tangible benefits like meaning and flexibility.” With the flexibility of remote work, employees discovered the freedom to pursue purpose-oriented activities, and this is translating into career decisions. These revelations are a call to action for organizations to recognize what’s important to their people by implementing systems that prioritize flexibility and by preparing their managers to serve as the foundation of such system.

Stay in touch! - Sign up for TMT Remote Work Crowdsourcing Session #6

Throughout 2022, we will continue to host virtual crowdsourcing sessions with leaders in the TMT industry to share insights that help your organizations develop strategies as the environment evolves. If you are an executive interested in participating in this research, sign up here.


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