The mass transition to remote work in March 2020 upended long-held norms surrounding where work can be done. However, true flexibility is much bigger than the freedom to work remotely, and many organizations still miss the mark. An updated policy on remote work is insufficient to address the needs of the post-pandemic workforce. Companies’ narrow views on the issue are pushing people out of their current jobs and even out of the workforce entirely.
It is time for organizations to radically transform their concept of flexibility. Employees today demand flexibility tailored to their specific needs, whether it be work-life balance, physical and emotional health, or caring for family. Managers will play a key role in personalizing flexibility for their direct reports as they work with HR to develop unique, creative solutions for their people.
The alternative is to risk losing people and fail to attract crucial talent. Among people who temporarily left the workforce, their top reason for returning was workplace flexibility (44 percent). The value of flexibility is clear, and leaders should consider these three elements of flexibility if they truly want to meet the needs of their employees:
- Where work can be done. This is the element that is most ingrained in how companies view flexibility. Among employees who left the workforce and later returned, nine out of 10 said that having control of where work can be done was an important factor—regardless of whether the role was in person, remote, or hybrid. Therefore, leaders should consider ways to truly give employees a sense of control over where they work. Hybrid work models with set days in the office are falsely flexible, and not all parts of an in-person job need to be done in person. For example, one large tech firm adopted a model called “Retail Flex,” allowing its in-store employees to work remotely when handling tech assistance and online sales.
- When work can be done. This element of flexibility may include employees setting their own working days and hours, giving sufficient notice on overtime and schedule changes so that work remains predictable, and allowing people to take time off when needed. Three out of four employees—whether in person, hybrid, or remote—reported that having control over when they work was a key factor impacting their decision to accept their current job. To retain employees, organizations must also find ways to reset expectations of 24/7 availability and stop imposing rigid hours on employees. Organizations must trust that the work will get done and leave employees with sufficient time and energy to take care of their personal responsibilities and well-being. One large automotive company instituted email blackout periods, even disabling employees’ ability to send and receive work emails on weekends and company holidays.
- How work can be done. This third element of flexibility means putting employees in the driver’s seat of their daily work activities—from allowing them to pace their workload to empowering them to decide how to accomplish work tasks. Three out of five in-person employees and four out of five hybrid or remote employees reported that having control over how work is completed was an important reason for taking their current job. One technology, media, and telecom company rewards employees for improving efficiency. When a savvy employee automated a time-intensive task and saved four hours per week, the company did not simply expand their work responsibilities to fill the “extra” four hours but instead encouraged them to spend the recouped time taking an extended lunch, working on a personally meaningful project, or fostering deeper connections with colleagues.
The time has come for a multifaceted understanding of flexibility. Gaining the competitive advantage in attracting new talent means embracing the where, when, and how of flexibility. The business case is clear: Provide true flexibility to retain and grow your workforce—or don’t, and watch your people leave.
The authors would like to thank Marino Mugayar-Baldocchi and Brendan Schuetze for their meaningful contributions to this post.
This blog post is part of a series on the Great Attrition, exploring the immediate actions leaders can take to retain and attract talent at a time when employees are leaving their jobs in droves. Topics include how to keep top-performing talent, the nuances emerging in different industries, adaptability as an antidote to burnout, the implications for the labor shortage and what to do about it, how to build a sense of community in the new employee landscape, the complex relationship between DE&I and attrition, the importance of employee experience, socioemotional support as the organization’s social glue, the need to reimagine and personalize flexibility at work, and competition from the gig economy and entrepreneurism.