The Future of Work Is Flexible Workers

Sean Doughtery

In 2020, almost overnight, organizations around the world were forced to upend their workforce models from an office-based approach to one that is almost entirely remote. The change has brought about huge challenges for flexible workers.


How do they maintain the focus and engagement of employees? How do they keep their workforce connected and communicating efficiently? Will employees be able to maintain work-life balance as flexible workers?


As the world economy lurched into this “new normal,” many countries struggled to adapt. Finland, however, seemed to be ahead of the curve.


The Rise of Flexible Work

In 1996, the Finnish government passed a law outlining the rights employees have over their work schedules. This included the right for workers to move their schedule by as much as 3 hours earlier or later than their employer’s normal working hours. 


Since the law was enacted, this flexibility has become deeply ingrained in the Finnish way of life. So much so that the country’s current prime minister, Sanna Marin, has called for a four-day workweek with six-hour workdays. 


Such a work arrangement may seem like a foreign concept to some, but in reality, it speaks to a broader trend in workers demanding more flexibility in their work life. In fact, according to a Deloitte study released in February, 94 percent of the US white-collar professionals interviewed stated that they would benefit from more work-life flexibility. The main reasons backing up that sentiment for respondents was improved mental health and better work-life balance, 43 and 38 percent, respectively. 


This movement shows little signs of slowing, too. In light of the seismic changes brought on by the global pandemic, Siemens announced plans to “establish mobile working as a core component” of their workforce moving forward. This includes two to three days a week of mobile working, as well as significant changes to the corporate culture. 


Other top employers are moving fast to try and follow suit, since they recognize that a culture of work flexibility is a key choice factor for top talent. 


According to UK human resources experts Capability Jane, 92 percent of millennials and 80 percent of all women are looking for flexibility in their next role. Additionally, in their recent polling of UK talent, 35 percent of workers would actually prefer flexible working arrangement to a pay raise. 


For all of the talent-side demand, though, shifting an organization to a remote-first workforce like Siemens isn’t that simple. Sure, in 2020 organizations have a plethora of communication tools to make the transition easier. From teleconferencing tools like Zoom, to team messaging systems like Slack, to cloud-based collaboration platforms, workplaces have a seemingly endless supply of tech at their fingertips. 


The big challenges, however, will fall on managers to maintain the human aspects of interactions and advancement within a remote team. 


The Potential Pitfalls

According to Catalyst, a global non-profit that works with the world’s most powerful CEOs to build organizations that work for women, there are three major considerations to keep in mind when shifting to a highly flexible workplace with flexible workers. 


The first is recognizing that there are many different kinds of flexible working arrangements. Take, for instance, our example of Finland. An organization may offer employees flexible arrival / departure times, or even a four-day week. There are also work-from-home arrangements to consider, shorter work days, job sharing as well as employing a contingent labor pool. The options are potentially endless, but it is important to understand that each option can bring value to different team members. 


The second challenge that Catalyst points out is the “path to promotion.” Managers need to be aware of how succession planning and advancement decisions have been made in the past. In many large organizations, employees curry favor with managers through physical facetime, earning them “brownie points” toward promotion consideration. In a remote workplace, that dynamic tends to evaporate. That may lead managers to identify top internal talent by those who work on large, highly visible projects for the company. Yet, as Catalyst says, “Women receive far fewer of these critical experiences.” This means managers and executives must find new, equitable and remote-friendly strategies to identify and reward top talent. 


Finally, Catalyst points out that creating a mentally safe culture is critical. Open communication is key, of course. Employees must feel safe that they are being seen and are appreciated. They need to know that the organization is shifting its promotion pathways and expectations to work with the new dynamic. Flexible workers need to feel that, by opting for flexible working arrangements, they aren’t missing out. 


In the Deloitte survey of white-collar US workers, 80 percent of respondents felt that a traditional work setting was important to climb the corporate ladder. Plus, 30 percent worried that adopt flexible working arrangements could hamper their professional development. 


So how do organizations and managers effectively transition to a flexible workplace employing flexible workers? 



Focus On Results, Not Face Time

Great managers understand that employees need a space that allows them to reach their maximum potential, whether that is in a shiny office building, on their couch at home or on a tropical beach. Particularly for creative work, where high levels of critical thinking are required, telecommuting has shown to have a positive impact according to the Journal of Economic Behavior and Organization. 


Again, however, organizations can’t adopt a one-size-fits-all approach. Empowered employees who feel a sense of autonomy in how they work tend to be the happiest, according to recent studies. Those with agency and who hold a sense that they control their own destiny are more satisfied and less likely to leave their employer. That, in turn, leads to lower turnover and higher employee engagement. 



The Future is Now

As each day passes, it is becoming more clear that there is no going back to a pre-Covid world. We have all experienced huge shifts in how we view our health, our spending habits and how we work, which will influence us for generations. The rise of flexible working and flexible workers is no different. Organizations that accept this reality and align their practices to support this new paradigm are poised to reap the financial rewards as well as attract the top talent in their industry. 


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