Agile & Digital / Matrix Management / Virtual Teams

Where will work flexibility end?

These are heady times for those of us who believe in flexibility at work. The world’s largest experiment in virtual working is still going on in many parts of the world, others are just starting to come to grips with the implications of hybrid working.

Elon Musk has created an interesting dynamic for himself in telling Tesla workers to come back to the office for at least 40 hours per week, whilst at the same time trying to purchase Twitter who have told their people they can work wherever they want forever. Someone is going to be disappointed.

At the same time a series of global experiments are underway in countries like Iceland and UK to test the feasibility of people working four days a week for the same pay. See my previous post for a radical idea on how individuals can help incentivise their companies to offer this flexibility.

People in areas like construction, retail or hospitality are asking “what about us”, in many cases organizations are finding it difficult to recruit people into roles that don’t offer location flexibility in a tight labour market.

At the moment the “great resignation” and skill shortages in many countries are giving greater bargaining power to individuals. Recruiters are finding that candidates who are told they would have to come into the office for five days per week are hanging up in the middle of interviews, or pulling out of the process afterwards.

In the current market, talent will decide.

However, even though I am a strong advocate of remote and virtual working (for example) I am pleased to see companies taking very different attitudes to the return to the office because these form a huge natural experiment where we will get to find out the implications of these different strategies.

We each have our views, but we’re about to get a lot of data, for example about whether it works better to give people complete flexibility, or to insist on certain days together in the office to promote cultural cohesion and relationships face to face.

I’ve also been around long enough to know that the pendulum will only swing so far in one direction without a countertrend emerging.

The increasing likelihood of recession will likely start to mitigate the balance of power in favour of employers.

There will be a push back from individual managers who don’t have the skills or the trust to manage their people remotely.

There will be numerous companies who fail to implement hybrid working successfully because they didn’t update their skills and ways of working. They will then conclude that hybrid was the problem and try to move back to a 100% office-based model.

There will be individuals who take it too far and abuse the privilege of flexibility. Now I don’t know all the circumstances of this particular case, but I followed a conversation recently on LinkedIn where an individual cancelled her attendance at a meeting because her daughter wanted to have her hair braided, and she felt this was a special parenting moment. Comments from her colleagues and many others applauded her bravery in prioritising this over a business meeting.

I will be honest in saying that, unless it was a totally unnecessary meeting, that felt like a step too far to me.

We will have to find the right balance between individual, team and business needs in implementing flexibility or it won’t be sustainable.

Rolling back flexibility would be hugely unpopular with individuals, and we are recommending to our clients that they position their moves to more flexibility as experiments, with some clear criteria for success or failure.

There may well be some aspects we will want to roll back in the future. Anyone who thinks they understand all the consequences of our global move to hybrid working is fooling themselves.

My advice to individuals and organisations is to work hard while you can to capture the gains in flexible working while they are available, and to focus on changing skillsets, mindsets and corporate culture to embed this way of working.

The more successful we are at smoothing this swing of the pendulum, the less severe will be the backswing, but it will come.

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