Imagine a future in which leaders, rather than clinging to a model of work that was fast becoming outdated even before 2020, invest in a new era of strategic and intentional high performance flexibility.
Yet, with COVID public health emergency declarations expiring last month, it’s clear employers and employees are not on the same page about how, when, and where we work going forward. In an opinion piece published in this past Sunday’s New Jersey Star Ledger, I provide both context for why and guidance on how to close this gap.
You can read the full piece below, but if I can offer one hopeful takeaway it’s this:
“Now is the time for employers and employees to move past failed mandates and entrenched positions and reimagine work together … The effort is not only worth it, but also transformational.”
By Cali Williams Yost
While COVID public health emergency declarations expired last month, the way we work is forever changed. Flexible work certainly had roots before we were mandated to stay home in March of 2020. But those changes were abrupt with no time to plan. Organizations quickly had to transform how they operated, and in some cases even survived.
Three years later, it’s clear employers and employees are not on the same page about how, when, and where we work going forward. Many leaders with genuine concerns about innovation, talent development, and culture believe the best work happens onsite while employees believe they’ve done their jobs well, or even better, with increased flexibility.
Both sides have some validity, which has led to a historic clash of contexts between the two. Leaders demand “come back” and employees rightfully ask, “Why?” Attempts to close this gap with return-to-office mandates, extra perks, and events fall flat.
As employers double down on compliance, it’s pushing employees further toward the door. Additionally, this approach makes work even less flexible than before COVID. The more rigid policies become, the more organizations miss the opportunity to develop a well-executed flexibility strategy that enhances job performance, employee engagement, and well-being. Now is the time for employers and employees to move past failed mandates and entrenched positions and reimagine work together.
But first, we need to recognize that COVID accelerated an existing trend toward greater flexibility and the priority now is to optimize that flexibility. Leaders need to stop wasting resources trying to “go back” and instead invest in high-performance flexibility across workplaces, spaces and time.
Data from my firm’s research conducted before the pandemic found most U.S. employees had some form of flexibility with more than one-third saying they did most of their work remotely. But that same survey showed nearly half of those with flexibility received no training or guidance how to use it. Additionally, in a Harvard Business School survey of 6,500 global leaders, also conducted before COVID, respondents cited “expectation for flexibility” as the top future of work factor they expected to impact their businesses, yet prepared for that flexibility was ranked 14th.
Second, come to terms with the price and payoff of optimizing flexibility. Just as with other business priorities and change, high-performance flexibility requires strategic intention, resources, commitment, and a willingness to collectively experiment and learn. The payoff is a dynamic, agile business and workforce that takes the best of how, when and where we worked both before and during the pandemic and moves forward from there.
Third, stop with the mandates and stop using a set number of days in office as a proxy for performance. Instead, leaders and teams together need to first ask, “What do we need to get done and why?” That lays the foundation to determine how, when and where we can do the best work and meet the needs of both the business and the employees. This also allows leaders to address what they believe was lost during the pandemic’s crisis-driven shift to flexible work and what they see as most important to regain.
Lastly, understand that inclusion in the process, not the outcome, ensures consistency and fairness. When everyone’s involved in answering the questions above, then everyone’s involved in redefining how, when and where they work next. That will differ by the job, the organization and the clientele, but under the umbrella of a consistent flexibility strategy.
For the majority of workers who do their jobs onsite, reconsider how and when they work. For those who can work either onsite or remotely, rethink how they spend their time when in person. And for those with fully remote roles, determine how they remain connected with colleagues and integral to day-to-day operations. Work will never be one-size-fits-all.
As we move past COVID’s public health emergency, some will continue to cling to a work model that was fast becoming outdated even before 2020. But I hope most will invest in a new era of strategic and intentional high-performance flexibility, one in which we move past entrenched beliefs and reimagine the future of work. The effort is not only worth it but also transformational.