Resolve the Clash Between Flexibility and Traditional Work Practices

Does it feel like the clash between the flexible work expectations of younger employees and your organization’s traditional work practices has escalated? If it does, you are not alone. Even employers on every “best of” work flexibility list face the challenge.

Recently, I had lunch with a leader from a “best of” company. At one point, he confessed with nervous laughter:

“You know we are in busy season and I can tell you right now there are partners in this firm who still require junior level employees to show up and physically sit together every day in a conference room while ordering food from paper menus. Why? Because that’s what you do in busy season.”

Immediately, I imagined a group of confused, frustrated junior-level employees sitting around the same table, day in and day out, legitimately wondering, “Why can’t we do this remotely? We would be working on the same system we’re logged onto in the conference room. And why aren’t we ordering food from GrubHub?!”

I also imagined the partner in charge of the engagement. Hearing about the team’s frustration, shaking her head and sighing to her peers, “Flexibility is fine, but this is busy season. The work is complex and requires a high degree of manager supervision. It’s what the client expects, and it’s what we have to do to get the best results.” But is it?

To resolve this conflict, you can’t stop at the level of flexible work policy, programs, and toolkits. It requires a more in-depth cultural shift where the generations learn to come out of their respective corners and explore ways work could be done better, smarter, and more flexibly.

That doesn’t mean throwing the baby-out-with-the bath-water. Everyone meets in the middle and follows an organized process of experimentation that, ultimately, becomes a part of everyday planning.

As a result, certain legacy work practices continue because everyone agrees they are the best approach, but they are married with new, more flexible ways of working, using technology and workspace. It’s what multigenerational expert, Lindsey Pollock, calls a “remix,” in her new book, The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace.

For the team stuck in the conference room during busy season with paper menus, that “remix” could look like:

  • An acknowledgment that this particular engagement does include more complex tasks that require hands-on manager oversight and more immediate real-time collaboration and information sharing. At the moment, the technology to replicate that degree of oversight and coordination either doesn’t exist or everyone hasn’t adequately mastered it. Therefore, to complete those tasks, the team agrees it makes sense to work together in the same location at the same time.
  • An agreement that the team could experiment with doing the more straightforward, less complicated aspects of the engagement flexibly. Each team member will plan, how, when, and where they will complete those tasks, optimally a week in advance. This gives managers time to review and adjust the proposed flexibility based on the engagement’s real-time progress.
  • A recognition that everyone—the partner, managers, and the engagement team–needs to be even more intentional and organized with their planning, as well as willing to recalibrate their flexibility to respond to unexpected shifts in the engagement’s progress.

At the end of busy season, review the results of the experiment. Revise based on outcomes. Rinse. Repeat.

What’s happening in your workplace? Has the clash between the flexible work expectations of younger employees and your organization’s traditional work practices escalated? If you need to “remix,” what could that look like?