Other approaches to flexibility include, say, spending three days at home and two in the office. It might even mean working together in person on some days, but only from 10 to 3 (to avoid soul-crushing rush hour traffic, for one thing). That’s something Brent Hecht, director of applied science in Microsoft’s Experiences and Devices organization and one of the leaders of Microsoft’s New Future of Work initiative, tried with his team before the Omicron surge sent everyone back to remote. “When we did spend time in the office, we thought about those times as shared hours versus shared days,” he says.
The Great Reshuffle and new employee expectations mean that an openness to working anytime, anywhere must be part of any competitive strategy: there is no longer any one way to work, making flexibility key. Instead, companies should envision a kind of fluidity that lets everyone integrate work more holistically into their lives. The trick is figuring out how to do this in a way that balances business outcomes with people and their wellbeing.
There is no longer any one way to work, making flexibility key.
“Enabling flexibility has obvious benefits for employees, but it’s not a zero-sum game,” says Jared Spataro, Microsoft corporate vice president of modern work. “It can also lead to positive outcomes for customers and ultimately bolster the bottom line. Achieving this win-win isn’t a given—it requires a proactive and deliberate approach that embraces entirely new ways of thinking. The opportunity in front of leaders today is a big one, and if done right can help them find the balance between business outcomes and employee growth and wellbeing.”
A Trusted Strategy, Tested in a Crisis
It’s an opportunity experts have been exploring for some time. The idea of flexible work began to emerge in the 1960s, when German management consultant Christel Kammerer proposed “flexiwork” as a way for working women like herself—especially mothers and caregivers—to adjust the start and end times of their work schedules. In 1972, NASA engineer Jack Nilles coined the term “telecommuting.” Maybe it was the space research talking, but he saw working from afar as a way to reduce auto pollution and mitigate an emerging gas-shortage crisis. Today, the pandemic has pushed flexibility to center stage—and how could it not? In March 2020, only 1 in 67 paid U.S. job listings on LinkedIn offered remote work. Now that number is close to 1 in 6.
The promise is certainly alluring: By all means, write that report from your mother-in-law’s porch in the Florida Keys. If putting in 10 hours on Tuesdays and Wednesdays adds an extra day to your weekend, the decision is yours.
At least that’s the glossy version. “Even before COVID, there was a gap in what flexibility meant for different people,” says Ellen Ernst Kossek, a management professor at Purdue University’s Krannert School of Management who studies work-life boundaries, flexibility, and remote work. She co-authored a recent Harvard Business Review article that warns of “inflexible flexibility,” whereby employees have flexible options on paper—“unlimited vacation time,” for example, that no one actually uses—but little choice about schedules. Others may get lost in a muddle of scattershot policies because no one has set clear boundaries. “With the forced teleworking of the pandemic,” she says, “rules were not always well negotiated and, in many cases, flexibility ended up benefiting the employer and not trickling down.” Yes, you no longer have a commute, and that can be life-changing. Equally life-changing? Now, you are working constantly.
The key, Kossek says, is not imposing flexible measures from on high but rather paying attention to human needs and providing the resources to make flexibility possible. (Similarly, Microsoft is working to enable hybrid work by empowering managers like Hecht to experiment with what works best for their teams. The company’s hybrid work guide offers some key advice on how to make workplace experiments successful and inclusive.) And this applies to frontline workers as well as people sitting behind laptops. Flexibility can start with something as simple as hiring “floaters” as support for a retail staff that feels overwhelmed, or letting employees choose shorter shifts to manage kids who are suddenly back to remote learning.
“The message you’re sending is ‘we trust you,’ and that seems to work really well.”
Whatever forms it takes, if companies are going to unlock flexibility for every employee, the approach requires being thoughtful and intentional. The 2021 Microsoft Work Trend Index found that women, along with Black and Latino workers, are more likely than white workers and men to say they prefer remote work. And when it comes to concerns around diversity, equity, and inclusion, says DEI consultant Ritu Bhasin, it’s especially important for leaders to be proactive and supportive when it comes to integrating people who prefer to work remotely.
Making Flexible Flexibility Work
The trial run that Hecht and his team experimented with came out of compelling research on the hours that people devote to work. One study found that commuting during off hours in Seattle reduces travel by as much as 78 hours a year, allowing workers, in theory, to sleep longer or attend a kid’s after-school band concert.
For his part, LinkedIn’s Dan Roth is noticing a kind of Cambrian explosion of flexibility experiments across the workforce. Whether it’s a company-wide week off around the Fourth of July or New Year’s (“Every employee is off so it really defeats the Sunday scaries,” Roth says), no-meeting Mondays, or sacrosanct rules around after-hours emails, such policies both reflect and build empathy and respect. “Especially when you let a team come up with their own rules around flexibility and remote structure, the message you’re sending is ‘we trust you,’ and that seems to work really well,” Roth says. Rather than worrying about what could go wrong and who might take advantage of flexible options, Roth suggests assuming best intentions. Solve for your top performers and you’ll get more top performers joining.
And if companies aren’t up for flexing, says Sonia Jaffe, a principal researcher and one of the leaders of Microsoft’s New Future of Work initiative, “I think you’ll see people voting with their feet and working wherever they find the choices they want.” The data backs this up: one large survey last year found that more than half of employees globally would quit their jobs if not provided with significant flexibility post-pandemic.
As technology evolves to help build flexibility into the flow of work, every organization will need to evolve its culture along with it, and getting there requires companies to rewire their thinking. That starts with listening and experimentation. Another way to look at it is more fundamental: Ultimately, it comes down to fostering a flexible mindset and trusting workers and teams to figure out together what works best for them. Because when it comes to driving the future of work forward, the power is theirs.