What’s driving the four-day work week movement?

What’s driving the most recent global demand for four-day work weeks (a concept that seems to resurface every couple of years)? I explained in an NBC Nightly News story that aired while I was on vacation, and before four-day work week legislation was introduced in California.

First, there’s the “cry for better boundaries” around work hours that’s only been exacerbated by the pandemic, which eliminated for many any remaining physical boundary between work and life.

Then there’s the documented performance improvements. The two companies NBC profiled have had great success with the shorter work week with one CEO saying the change, “helped boost morale and the company’s bottom line.” It’s noteworthy they are smaller companies which is where four-day work weeks have historically had the most success.

Both of the companies – one an online clothing retailer and the other an RV manufacturer – not only reduced the days worked, but also the hours. Each moved to a 32-hour work week. NBC also reported “a years long trial in Iceland was so successful that now 86% of its workforce is on track to work fewer hours after finding productivity remains the same or improved.”

But, to me, the real story isn’t about working fewer hours or fewer days. It’s about a broader reimagining how, when and where your organization operates given the unique needs of your business, job and clients served. At the end of the NBC segment, they shared key points I had emphasized when they interviewed me, “Some experts caution – no one-size-fits all. It depends on the kind of job you have, the type of equipment involved and your customers calendars.”

The four-day work week is a form of time, or WHEN, flexibility that may work for some organizations and jobs but not others. Remote and hybrid work are about WHERE work is done and are feasible in some instances but not others.  It depends.  As much as Iceland, and now California may push for broad, one-size-fits-all adoption, history and experience show it’s not that cut and dry.

To determine what’s best for your organization and your team, always start by asking, “WHAT work do we need to get done” and then HOW, WHEN, and WHERE can we do it best.

“These experiments with a four-day work week deserve headlines for their innovation and impact. Such changes or pilots acknowledge what many feel –  the traditional model of work is, at least, outdated and at worst, broken.”

That’s what I said in a November 2019 LinkedIn post ,“Beyond 4-Day Work Weeks and 5-Hour Work Days”, the last time four-day workweeks made headlines. That was also pre-pandemic! As you’ll learn while reading the post, most of what I wrote then is even more relevant now.  And it will be interesting to see if this time four-day work weeks gain meaningful traction and staying power.

The pandemic accelerated the trend toward greater work flexibility that was already well underway for years. Work has fundamentally changed. Now, people know they can do their jobs differently and effectively. Flexibility across workplaces, spaces and time is both an expectation and a need.

The challenge now is also the opportunity. How will your organization execute its unique flexible “next” of work with strategic intention that benefits both the business and people?

Learn how you can help identify and close any gaps by trying the Flex+Strategy Group’s High Performance Flexibility Assessment. I encourage you and your fellow leaders to complete together to see where you are on the same page and where you are not.  I can’t wait to hear what you find!


Parents+Omicron+Flexibility: Now More Than Ever!

Yesterday, the U.S. posted 1 million new cases of COVID. That’s twice the number from just four days ago, and it’s the most any country has ever reported, according to Bloomberg. The next few weeks will likely become even more challenging, especially for parents–moms and dads–and the managers who employ them.

I share my thoughts on how managers and parents can start a problem-solving dialogue NOW.

Work together to find flexible, creative ways parents can work and manage the uncertain, ever-changing realities of caring for their pre-school and school-age children in the face of Omicron. And why everyone benefits.

This is my first experiment with quick, real-time video when I have something particularly important to share! Let me know what you think.


It’s Not Too Late: How to Rapidly Switch to a Remote and Flexible Workplace

Monday morning we woke up to additional states and cities announcing “shelter in place” and “stay home” mandates. That means this week even more organizations and employees find themselves working remotely and flexibly for the first time.

It’s not too late to take action. Leaders still have time to help their organizations make the remote and flexible workplace pivot. And, in doing so, maintain a level of operating continuity without unnecessarily jeopardizing their employees’ health during the evolving new normal of the coronavirus crisis.

They also avoid the risk of having to scramble at the last minute if forced to completely shut down in-person, non-essential operations at some point.

Here are ten basic, get-started steps to rapidly transition your organization. These steps are taken from four more comprehensive posts listed below if you want more details.

I also discussed five of the steps in this episode of the Disrupt Yourself podcast (episode and transcript) with disruption expert, Whitney Johnson.

To get started:

Map out Jobs and Tasks. Note which roles and duties:

1) Can be done, even partially, remotely,

2) Cannot be done, even somewhat, remotely, and

3) Not sure (experiment with these by starting remotely).

Divide Non-Remote Employees into A and B Teams: For jobs that cannot be done even partially remotely, AND if you are not under a “shelter-in-place” or “stay home” mandate yet, divide employees deemed ESSENTIAL to onsite operations into A and B teams.Spread parents across “A and B” teams and be creative with schedules to allow them to coordinate childcare.

Prioritize Use of Available IT Hardware and Software. Start with the tech most people know and can easily use. Keep it simple. Wait to explore adopting any new technology solutions until later.

Set up a Communications Protocol. Clarify how different constituents will communicate and when. Don’t be afraid to “interrupt” each other. Assume everyone is “working” unless otherwise indicated.

Redirect Work: Identify tasks/meetings that can be handled virtually without disruption and execute as many details as possible. Experiment where you aren’t sure.

Optimize Work: Fill extra time and capacity that opens up with important, backburner projects that never seemed to get done before (e.g. manuals updated, market research conducted, client lists reviewed), but can be completed virtually.

Continually Prioritize and Check-in (Even If It Feels Like Micro-Managing): Set a schedule for formal one-on-one and team updates. During these check-ins, continually review and prioritize what matters. Leave space for some personal community-building.

Shift Your Productivity Mindset: This is not business as usual. It’s an immediate crisis with very real challenges to address. Adjust your productivity expectations accordingly. SOME productivity is better than NO productivity right now. Keep the flywheel going and people contributing as much as possible especially as everyone gets their bearings in this new temporary normal.

Accept Imperfect Remote Workspaces and Practices: Encourage people to be accessible and responsive during this crisis transition, even with dogs, kids, and roommates in the background.

Capture Real-time Learning and Insights: Each week, check-in and capture what’s happening. These insights can guide the ongoing reimagining of how, when and where work can be done through each phase of the crisis and beyond.

More details regarding the above steps can be found in the following posts:

What’s Your Company’s Remote Work Plan? (HBR)

Tips for Leading Organizations New to Remote and Flexible Work (LinkedIn)

How to Work and Take Care of 32 Million Children (LinkedIn)

A/B Teams: Flexible Schedules and Locations When Remote Work Isn’t an Option (LinkedIn)


How to Work and Take Care of 32 Million Children

Parents across the U.S. and their employers woke up this morning with a new and daunting reality — how to work, care for and educate the estimated 32 million children who may be home from school for the foreseeable future. Here are a few tips to help leaders and parents partner to flexibly fit work, life, school, and family together:

Shift Your Productivity Mindset:  The goal is not to maintain pre-coronavirus levels of productivity. It’s about keeping everyone safe and healthy while maintaining as much productivity as possible as we all adapt to this new, ever-changing normal. The key is to be as creative and supportive as possible. If there was ever a moment to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, now is that time. Keep repeating: SOME productivity is better than NO productivity.

Talk Honestly and Be Patient:  Typically, bosses and employees don’t want or need to get into the nitty-gritty of how someone is going to work and take care of their kids. But these are not typical times. Keep the lines of communication open especially as parents settle into some sort of new routine with caregiving and home instruction. Managers, a little bit of extra support and understanding may be the difference between a worker who finds a way to keep contributing and one who throws up their hands and says, “I can’t do this.”

Expect and Embrace Imperfect Remote Workspaces: Effective remote working usually requires a separate workspace with limited disruptions from children, pets, and partners. That is an unrealistic and unnecessary expectation during this period when employees and kids were sent home to remote work and learn with little time to plan. The goal now is for people to feel they can be as responsive and accessible as possible, even if the environment is not absolutely perfect. If everyone—bosses, coworkers, and customers–can forgive a screaming child, barking dog, or the hum of a video game in the background, it will allow everyone to sustain a higher level of communication that would otherwise stop.

Spread Parents Across “A and B” Teams and Be Creative with Schedules:  For jobs that have certain tasks that cannot be done remotely, companies have started to use an “A and B Team” system to limit the number of people together in the same physical space. For those that have or are planning to do so, consider the following:

  • Assign employees who are parents evenly on both teams
  • Allow parents to stagger their start and stop times to coordinate care with partners and other support resources. Allow them to arrive and leave earlier or arrive and leave later as needed.

Hire College Students Available to Help: With two daughters sent home from college for online classes, I know there are millions of higher ed students that will have plenty of time in between classes for activities requiring limited social interaction. Now, there are public safety caveats given current CDC guidelines regarding social distancing. That’s why I say “will have” time. Many college students will not go back to school until fall. Use your judgment and listen to the public health authorities; however, after the period of strict social distancing and personal quarantine periods have passed, we will have millions of smart, motivated young people who could not only help care for kids while parents work but could also lead home instruction.

We have entered an unprecedented work and life reality. By shifting mindsets, changing expectations and re-imagining how, when and where work is done, we can mitigate the coronavirus, care for and educate our kids and stay open for business.

If you are a leader, how are you partnering with your working parent employees? If you are a working parent, what has been your experience so far? What’s worked and what hasn’t? What would help you?


A/B Teams: Flex Schedules and Locations When Remote Work Isn’t an Option

How do you implement a flexible work crisis plan that keeps everyone healthy, safe and as productive as possible during a very challenging period when remote work isn’t an option for certain jobs or organizations?

“Flexing” where people work is getting the most airtime and attention, but flexing when and how people can work together is another option to consider. 

The key is to social distance by controlling the number of people in one space at one time while maintaining at least some level of operating continuity.

One way to do this is to divide employees deemed ESSENTIAL to onsite operations and cannot work remotely into A and B teams. Schedule the teams to limit the exposure of the whole group to the coronavirus and then ensure the workspaces are cleaned daily. Here’s an example:

  • Week 1—Team A: Monday, Wednesday, Friday
  • Week 1—Team B: Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday (Add Sat if want to add productivity hours, if needed)
  • Week 2—Team A: Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday
  • Week 2—Team B: Monday, Wednesday, Friday

Employees must stick to the teams to which they are assigned to limit exposure. That’s a mandate. To support employees with school-age children at home, divide parents across teams and allow them to shift their start and stop schedules to coordinate caregiving needs.

Productivity—Maintaining as Much as Realistically Possible in a Crisis Period

The reality is when a team that is essential to onsite operations is divided in half and works three-day weeks, productivity will decrease approximately 40 percent per week if employees typically work an eight-hour day.

To address this, some organizations have added Saturdays and/or extended workdays to 10 hours to make up for lost productivity. This still totals 30 hours a week. For this to work, leaders need to make peace with the fact that by switching to A and B teams they’ve kept their people safe while maintaining as much productivity as possible during the crisis period.

Keeping Everyone “Whole” 

How will pay be affected for those A and B team members? Some organizations have found creative ways for employees to use the extra hours to complete tasks that can be done remotely such as updating procedures, cross-training, and continuing education.

Some employers, that are able, are continuing to pay full salaries during this crisis regardless of the hours worked, while others that can’t are decreasing pay proportionally to avoid layoffs and to continue providing at least a percentage of an employee’s salary. (Hopefully, legislation currently under consideration will help with this gap).

There Are More Options than Remote Working 

Everyone is doing their best to rapidly reimagine the way work is done under very difficult, rapidly changing circumstances. There is no right or wrong answer.

It’s about what works best right now; however, the use of A and B teams to creatively schedule when and how your people work is another possible way of continuing to operate if remote work isn’t possible for certain jobs or organizations.

Caution: Some organizations may be using A and B teams as their primary flexible work crisis strategy, even though, if you look closely many of the jobs do not require onsite presence and could be done remotely, at least in part. The reason seems to be that on some level it’s easier than switching everyone over to working remotely. The problem with that is:

  • You are unnecessarily exposing people who don’t need to be exposed to each other and
  • You run the risk that should even more restrictive limits on gatherings be issued, you will be caught scrambling to get remote work up and running under even more challenging circumstances.

Have you or your organization implemented A and B teams as part of your flexible work crisis management strategy? What did you do? How is it working?


Beyond 4-Day Workweeks and 5-Hour Workdays: Flexible, Dynamic Guardrails

Last week multiple people have asked me, “What do you think about Microsoft’s 4-Day Workweek.” Whenever this happens, I’m reminded why these stories strike a chord.

People respond enthusiastically to this and other “work reimagined” successes, including one in which a German company instituted 5-Hour Workdays, because it’s inspiring to see an organization try something new, even if it isn’t perfect or doesn’t last forever.

Such changes or pilots acknowledge what many feel — the traditional model of work is, at least, outdated and at worst, broken.

But the answer isn’t to implement another rigid, one-size-fits-all work schedule.  

Before I explain what I mean, let’s look at the highlights of the two resets mentioned above:

Here’s what I think:

It’s less about a shorter workweek or a shorter workday, and more about reimagining work within a new set of flexible, responsive guardrails. 

Those guardrails aren’t just hours and days.

Leveraging time with strategic intention is important (because as the experiments above have shown, less can be more). But it’s also critical to consider how you are optimizing tech tools, space and place, process and pace to get your job done well and manage life. The “how” and “where” get lost if the sole focus in on “when.”

That’s why I’m always fascinated when companies boast how they’ve reframed the traditional model of work, when all they’ve done is implement an equally rigid, albeit different, one-size-fits-all, time-based solution.

Instead, organizations need to reimagine work within a set of guardrails that are based on shared principles and a decision-making process, not rules.

These guardrails provide the structure that helps answer the question, “what do we need to get done and whenwhere, and how do we do it best?”

The principles and process are consistent enough to keep everyone moving in the same direction but broad enough so that the way work flexibility, technology, and workspace are leveraged adapts to the ever-changing needs of a particular job, business, or person.

That’s high performance flexibility.

As Microsoft probably discovered and Digital Enabler found out, everyone may not be able to operate consistently within the same rigid time boundaries. Leaders end up addressing and managing all of the exceptions that don’t fit the rule.

Alternatively, they could have positioned their four-hour workweek or five-hour workday as one of the primary principles, or guardrails, for when work can be done instead of a mandate when work must be done. This supports responsive, real-time flexibility.

It’s about the Work+Work Fit and Work+Life Fit

One of the main drivers for both companies was a better work+life fit for employees.  But leveraging time and tech, space and place, process and pace, also allowed the companies to optimize the work+work fit for the business. They hired and kept the people they needed to do the work.  Meetings were shortened.  More work was done in less time.  Technology was used more effectively.  Utility costs were reduced.

Yes, it’s important and noteworthy that people improved their personal satisfaction and happiness; but, it’s the business results from a more flexible and responsive work+work fit that will ultimately ensure continued support from leadership.

These experiments with a one-size-fits-all 4-Hour Workweek and 5-Hour Workday deserve headlines for their innovation and impact. But the real news is it’s time for companies to reimagine work within a new set of dynamic, flexible guardrails that not only optimize when we work but where and how.

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The Floodgates Fear

Recently, I met with a forward-thinking leader who recognized his organization had reached a tipping point.  He knew the current approach to flexibility in the way work is done was too random, inconsistent, and organic.  It needed to be more coordinated and strategic to address a variety of business challenges, including attracting and retaining the diverse, knowledgeable talent required to run the business.

But, like clockwork, he asked the following three questions in quick succession:

“What if it sets a precedent?”
“How will I know if people are working if I can’t see them?”
“What if they abuse it?”

He had officially hit “The Floodgates Fear,” a fear so deep and pervasive that it has its own name (and is preceded by a “The”).

Simply put leaders are afraid that if they officially and publicly encourage employees to leverage work flexibility, technology, and workspace to do their jobs and manage their lives, this will be the result:

No one will show up for work.  Leaders worry they will be the only ones standing in a room full of empty desks answering all of the emails, fielding all of the calls, attending all of the meetings –alone.

When I share this picture with groups of leaders, they laugh and nod their heads in recognition.  That is EXACTLY what they are afraid of.

So, the question is how do they avoid getting paralyzed by The Floodgates Fear and inspire the organization to make the shift to high performance flexibility?

First, it’s important to acknowledge this fear is real and valid.  Too often I see brave leaders who articulate what many of their peers are too afraid to say out loud only to be labeled “naysayers” or “resisters.”  Quite the opposite.  They know they are stuck at a roadblock.  They are looking for a roadmap that gets them to the other side of the fear.

For a sense of what that roadmap to the other side of fear looks like consider my responses to the questions the leader I recently met with posed:

Fear #1: “What if it sets a precedent?”  
Implementing a culture of shared accountability, trust and leadership that is the basis ofhigh performance flexibility will set a precedent. The precedent will be that everyone has the language, mindset, skills, and tools to effectively answer the question, “what do we need to get done, and how, when, and where do we do it best?”  That means making an investment in the training, practice, and resources necessary for everyone to master this new, more intentional way of working.

Fear #2: “How will I know if they are working if I can’t see them?”
The simple answer is, “how did you know they were working when they came into the same physical space at the same time every day? It should be no different.”

As is often the case, the leader I was speaking with responded with a blank stare, because the truth is in most organizations metrics of performance and productivity are not very clear.

One of the most powerful impacts of a culture-shift to high performance flexibility is suddenly people start to ask, “What matters to our business?  How are we measuring it?”  As those parameters become more defined, and supervisors no longer rely on presence as a proxy for performance, the fear begins to recede.

Fear #3: “What if they abuse it?” 
Yes, a small minority of people may lack the competencies to operate effectively in a flexible work culture.  However, with the right training, support, and guidance, the majority will give you more.  Research, and more than two decades of experience, have proven this to be true again and again.

If there is “abuse,” upon closer inspection, it’s usually a general performance issue and not flexibility issue. Greater latitude to determine how, when and where work is done can cause a deeper problem to become more visible and it should be dealt with accordingly.

If you are a leader who wants to unlock the performance and engagement at the core of work flexibility, technology and workspace but you find yourself stuck behind The Floodgates Fear, you are not alone. There’s a roadmap to the other side of that roadblock. It’s a matter of training, practice, measurement and managing to the majority who will thrive.

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Delivering on the Promise of Work Flexibility

Recently, I was interviewed for an insightful article in USA Today entitled “More Employers Offer Flexible Hours, but Many Grapple with How to Make It Succeed” reporting the results of a national survey of hiring managers. After that interview, I re-read the recent article in the New York Times, “Young People are Going to Save Us All from Office Life” because I realized, together, they shed light on a critical workplace trend:

Employers have reached a tipping point. Younger workers are bringing their default expectation of flexibility into the workplace and it is forcing employers to grapple with how to respond.  While many are struggling with that response, clearly a meaningful percentage of hiring managers (44%) see an opportunity. They’re offering the promise of flexible scheduling, upfront, as part of their recruitment value proposition to differentiate their companies in a tight labor market (see chart below)

This brings up a couple of key challenges for employers:

Challenge #1: If an organization makes the promise to offer real and meaningful flexibility, how do they deliver on that promise in a way that works for the business and the person?  The USA Today story provides a great example of a failure to deliver:

“Last month, Michael Richman, owner of Academy Awning in Montebello, California, waded gingerly into the modern world of flexible work schedules, allowing a 22-year-old designer to come in at odd hours so he could go back to college full time.  It didn’t go well.

“The designer wasn’t available midday to answer questions from an East Coast customer and was hard-pressed to quickly address concerns raised by welders and other factory employees at the awning maker, which has 35 staffers.

“Richman also wondered how much the designer was really working when he was alone in the office. ‘It was a disaster,’ Richman says. ‘We have to have a somewhat regimented schedule. To have people coming and going at different times creates disruption.'”

What could Academy Awning have done differently?  Three things:

Train their employees upfront in the skills to propose a formal flexible “reset” of how, when, and where they work.  The designer wasn’t making small, informal, flexible tweaks to his work+life fit.  He was fundamentally changing the way he worked.  That required creating a plan that outlined how he was going to shift his schedule but still meet the core requirements of his job, which seemed to include:

  • Answering questions midday from East coast customers. Solution: Try to schedule classes toward the end of the day and evening when possible, and when at class, regularly check emails and answer any important questions during a break.
  • Quickly address concerns raised by welders and other factory employees. Solution: Share his schedule with welders and factory employees in advance. Check in to see if they have any questions before leaving for class and let them know the best way to reach him if they have an urgent matter.

Unfortunately, according to our research, a majority of employees who work flexibly receive no training or guidance at all.  Well-implemented flexibility requires training employees, teams and managers in the mindset, skills and tools they need to succeed.

Clarify expectations, ask for regular progress updates, and agree to performance metrics.  In a culture of high performance flexibility, a leader doesn’t wonder if someone is working if they are alone.  First, they don’t assume a person is working when they are physically sitting in the office because they know presence doesn’t equal performance.  Second, leaders continually clarify what matters, what’s being measured, and how it’s measured.  As long as that is happening, they don’t worry whether they can or can’t see an employee.

Re-calibrate if the flexibility is not working versus calling it a “disaster.” Realities change, and sometimes even the most thoughtful formal reset plan that everyone expected to work may not once it’s implemented. In that case, supervisors and employees know upfront (because that’s how they’ve been trained) it’s time to re-calibrate, not necessarily completely throw in the towel.

Starting with these three steps, an employer could confidently include flexibility in the way work is done in their recruitment value proposition because they can fulfill that promise.

Which brings us to…

Challenge #2: If you don’t want to promise work flexibility, how will you compete for top talent against the employers that do?  Good question. It’s one that leaders need to consider carefully.

To that end, a few weeks ago, I talked about the loyalty high performance flexibility creates. And I asked you to share your stories. Here’s one from a senior leader about the executive assistant she was able to retain:

“Many years ago, the woman who was my executive assistant came to me with a request.  She had recently become a single mom of elementary-aged girls and wanted to know if I would ‘allow’ her to come to the office a bit after 9 AM rather than our opening hours of 8.  In addition to being my right hand, she also supervised the other staff who were the administrative support in the Vice President’s office.

“She did not want to have to put her girls in a before-school program as well as an after-school program. She told me that she would happily get up early, work from home for an hour before waking her daughters, sharing breakfast with them, and seeing them on the bus. Then she would drive to work to start her day.

“To me, the answer was obvious…I was just so glad she was willing to come forward with the plan because I don’t think I was sensitive enough, at the time, to realize the stress of both a before-school and after-school program for her daughters, and for her.

“Aside from giving her that flexibility, she also got WAY more accomplished in that hour-plus of work in the early AM, without staff to supervise, phones to answer, or me asking her questions with some frequency.  My only request of her was to work with the staff she supervised to make sure the office opened, and the phones were answered at 8, even with her not being there.

“Her staff more than rose to the occasion and accepted the responsibility readily. The hour in the AM also gave me a chance to get to know them even better because often they were stepping up to help with something I needed in the office…and they were more than capable of providing that assistance.

“Also, when one of the girls was sick, having her work from home, rather than take a sick day, also made sense as she, again, accomplished a great deal in that quiet setting.

“That Susan was a self-starter, and high-level performer made the decision to support the flexibility she needed easy. Furthermore, the thought that she might look elsewhere for a position with more flexibility was frightening.  We needed her even more than she needed us!”

What’s happening in your organization?  Are you offering the promise of work flexibility upfront in your recruitment value proposition?  If yes, how are you making sure you are able to deliver on that promise in a way that works for the business and the person?  As always, I love to hear from you!

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Open Office Spaces May Be “the Worst,” Now What?

Thank you CBS Sunday Morning’s Faith Salie for your commentary, “An Open Secret: Open Office Plans Are the Worst.” The segment was important because it reported the results of a Harvard Business School study that, because it was released over the summer, didn’t get as much coverage as it should have given what it found–open office workspaces (as currently implemented) don’t achieve the promised gains in collaboration and interaction. 

In fact, according to the research, going to an open office configuration has just the opposite effect, “open office triggered the human response to socially withdraw and interact over email and IM.” Over the years, in addition to the tendency to use technology to communicate, I’ve seen people do the following when there are fewer walls at work: 

  • Setting alarms to get up an hour or two earlier in order to get focused work done before going into the office. 
  • Engaging in an ongoing complex, and often unsuccessful, rule-setting process that tried to clarify norms of behavior that would satisfy everyone’s preferred work style. For example, if you want to discuss an issue with more than one person for longer than 15 minutes, take it to a “collaborative workspace” (which was either booked by another group, or occupied by someone who didn’t want to hear your discussion). 
  • Milling hoards in the elevator banks or hallways quietly talking into their phones often with their hands cupped over their mouths. 
  • Even standing up and sharing in a meeting that because they are more introverted and could get nothing done in the new open office they were considering filing an Americans with Disabilities Act claim (true story!). 

Not particularly positive, collaborative behavior.  

However, as the segment also points out, open offices allow organizations to put more people in the same or less space. It saves money. Which is why, while I agree open workspaces are not optimal the way they are currently implemented, they aren’t going away. So, what do we do now, especially since early indications are that the newest members of the workforce, Gen-Z, may prefer more privacy at work than their supposedly open office-friendly Millennial colleagues? 

Start by agreeing that organizations aren’t completely off-base to rethink workspace. We often hear from clients that their space utilization analysis finds a large percentage of desks unoccupied on a given day.  Recently, in one case, it was 30%. 

It makes sense to optimize those unused offices and desks; however, the challenge is how to optimize that space without the unintended productivity and employee engagement loses offset cost savings. 

Answer: Instead of open workspaces, build flexible work cultures, where the type of workspace—onsite, remote, open, collaborative, private—is chosen based the task at hand. The focus is on the work, and how, when and where it is done most productively, not the space. 

For example, we’ve worked with companies that have retained a large portion of onsite open space but made that space just one location which people could choose to do their work. Depending upon the type of job they have and the specific task they need to complete at a particular time, people flexibly pick the optimal space within which to do it. It could be from a spot in the open office, or at another space onsite (e.g. bookable shared office or conference room or cafeteria), space in another corporate location, remotely from home, or remotely from the library or coffeeshop. What’s really popular are little onsite, phone-booth-like rooms which are essentially tiny, mobile private offices. 

With that extra degree of control and flexibility, the challenges of an open office are less daunting, and the collegial aspects can be appreciated and used.  If private phone calls need to be made or reports completed that require unbroken attention, the employee may choose to work remotely or book a private space (assuming there are enough, which there often aren’t). However, if there’s a project that would be completed more efficiently if everyone is in the same place, a team may choose to be onsite and together in the open office. 

The key to success is training everyone—supervisors, teams, and individual employees—how to plan, leverage and coordinate where and when they will work most effectively.  And give them to tools to support that sharing, booking and coordination. This is where most organizations fall short. 

In contrast, in the Harvard study, employees went from assigned cubicles to assigned seats onsite in a large open room of desks and monitors that they were expected to work in every day. This is the way many organizations transition their people to open workspaces and the result can be all of the negative outcomes listed above.

Yes, open offices, as currently implemented, can be the worst; however, they probably aren’t going away. Smart employers incorporate them into a broader culture of flexibility that allows people to choose where they work best based on what they need to accomplish.

Click HERE to be added to the Flex Strategy Group Newsletter and receive periodic updates and insights from Cali Williams Yost.


“Flex” Your Business Model to Seize Market Opportunities and Address Challenges

Several segment leaders across different industries made headlines for “flexing” their traditional business models to seize market opportunities and address operating challenges. These nimble businesses reimagined how, when and where work could be done. In the process, they showed that work flexibility is much more than an HR perk, digital app or workspace redesign.

Instead these savvy businesses used work flexibility as a powerful strategy to respond rapidly and creatively to market shifts.

CVS Matches Talent to Regional, Seasonal Shifts in Customer Demand

CVS noticed two trends. First, a large percentage of their older customers in colder regions migrated south for the winter. The challenge then became how to temporarily staff up stores in the south and skinny down in the north to match those customer shifts. They also noticed that older pharmacy staff were either retiring to join the winter migration south or would be open to the opportunity. Solution: The company decided to allow interested CVS employees from the north to temporarily relocate and transfer to a store in the south during the winter.

The result: CVS retains and relocates experienced talent to match regional shifts in their customer base. 

Esquire Deposition Solutions Uses Remote Work to Address Talent Shortage

Esquire Deposition Solutions also faced two related challenges–increased demand for reporters across the court system, and a shortage of court reporters to meet that demand. A talent gap that is projected to worsen with a workforce averaging 55 years old.  In response, Esquire Deposition Solutions “flexed” their traditional business model to no longer require court reporters to be physically present in the courtroom at all times. It now allows certified stenographers “who have been trained in remote court reporting by Esquire” to work in one of the company’s 35 U.S. offices instead. They will have shorter commutes and the ability to process a variety of depositions a day, depending on the legal matter’s length and complexity.

Not only does this shift address the mismatch between the supply of and demand for court reporters, but advocates see potential gains in productivity and ongoing technological innovation.  

Shake Shack Pilots Four-Day Workweek to Attract and Retain Managers

If you are an expanding restaurant chain, like Shake Shack, you can’t grow if you can’t find experienced general managers. According to company leadership, “the chain will open 26 to 40 new stores this year. But it could open 100 new stores if it could hire all the general managers it wanted.”

In response, Shake Shack decided to “flex” their five-day, 40-hour workweek business model and pilot a four-day, 40-hour workweek to attract and retain general managers with three to five years of experience. 

This shift is modeled after a similar change successfully implemented by a smaller Alabama-based chain, Aloha Hospitality. When discussing the strategic shift to a four-day workweek for managers, Aloha CEO Bob Baumhower said, “You’ve heard the phrase, ‘it takes a village,’ well in our case it takes a team. Everyone has to buy in, go the extra mile and support each other to make it work.”

That’s true for any flexible work transformation, including those above. Success ultimately requires a realignment of all aspects of an organization including culture, work processes, policies, workforce, workspace, technology, and operations. Assuming that happens, these companies will set an example for others to follow.

When businesses reimagine how, when and where work can be done, not only do they respond more nimbly to market opportunities and challenges, but they give their people what they want, which is a win for all. 

What are some other examples of businesses “flexing” their traditional business models?

Click HERE to be added to the Flex Strategy Group Newsletter and receive periodic updates and insights from Cali Williams Yost.