Over the past 18 months, we have all experienced new ways of working. Now that everyone has sampled the available options and vaccines have made it safer to return to the office, a debate has erupted about the future of work.
On one end of the spectrum, some organisations have seized on the excitement about remote work and announced the permanent closure of their offices. Those on the other end – including several large and successful multinational companies – are eager for a return to their pre-pandemic standard, an entirely office-based work week.
Ultimately, both extremes limit employee choice. Every employee is a person with unique preferences and circumstances, and requiring everyone to work a certain way is limiting. In my opinion, the ideal solution is clear: make options available and let employees choose.
Why flexible working?
In our organisation, we understand that our employees are what make the business work. We trust them to make decisions on behalf of the business all day long, so when it comes to deciding how best to work, it’s not a difficult leap to let them decide.
To us, flexible working means the absolute freedom to come into the office or work from home at an employee’s discretion. Whether they choose to work entirely from the office, their home or a mixture is up to them. This model is also more inclusive, as flexible work enables every individual to adapt their working life to their needs, commitments and circumstances.
Naturally, in some businesses there will be some exceptions. For example, some of our IT and services teams are required to be in the office at times. However, we try to make it up to those employees by providing them with other flexible perks that make them feel in control of their working lives.
In any case, when it comes to implementing this type of policy in an organisation, it’s not a “set it and forget it” decision. Here are some important factors to consider.
Designing an equitable system
A business’s first priority should be ensuring that employees are treated fairly, wherever they choose to work. One of the big risks involved with implementing a hybrid working model is that employees may feel that people who choose a different way of working are receiving preferential treatment.
Working from the office and from home each have different advantages and disadvantages, and perks or benefits in one environment may not have a direct equivalent for the other. It’s a balancing act, but organisations that try to make both experiences great for employees can’t go far wrong. Most issues arise when there are restrictions or penalties for one type of working model.
For example, at Bullhorn, while we have consulted with employees and settled on keeping our existing range of in-office perks, we have also offered a stipend to every employee who intends to work from home so they can create a home office that is both comfortable and meets their individual needs.
Improving policy over time
The significant shift in working culture that we are all experiencing is a learning curve, and many of the challenges aren’t immediately apparent. Organisations need to continue to listen to employees over the coming months and years as circumstances will continue to change, alongside using data to monitor trends in employee engagement, satisfaction, and wellbeing.
No system starts out perfect, so businesses should iterate over time in line with employee feedback. It’s important that employees have a forum for voicing their opinions, so businesses should set up an optional regular meeting or appoint someone with responsibility for the way people work.
Creating a culture of communication
Modern technology is a prerequisite for a system of flexible working, but it isn’t a full solution by itself. Organisations must build upon collaborative technology to foster a trusting, communicative culture where everybody feels connected and information moves frictionlessly.
Employees need to become just as comfortable reaching out remotely as going over to have a chat with someone across the office, and trust that the results will be just as effective. However, this shouldn’t involve suspicion or mistrust. If a business feels it can’t trust employees to make decisions for themselves and get on with their work, it has a hiring problem, not a work problem.
The future of work is up in the air, and where it will land is up to business leaders. Enabling employees to choose for themselves is the most effective solution, and I believe that businesses that listen to their staff will have a significant advantage going forward. At the end of the day, the happiest employees are those who feel in control of their work – and their working lives.
Andy Ingham is senior vice president, EMEA and APAC, at Bullhorn, a cloud computing company