Why only total work flexibility will do – and that means work from anywhere, anytime

As some companies take a ‘return to the office or else’ stance, Duena Blomstrom says HR can lead a radical new approach

Credit: Duena Blomstrom

The idea that work oughtn’t be tied to the convention of an office, time or set of processes and unquestioned status quo, but instead should be a collection of moments of personal and group states of flow that are conducive to high performance, isn’t new. 

I was writing about the fact that work has to be about ‘why’ more than the ‘where’ or the ‘how’ many years ago in Forbes and have since researched what works and added all the findings to my latest book. I did it from the trenches, having personally run and coached hybrid and fully remote teams for 20-odd years. I’m here to say it’s not easy, but nothing else but total flexibility will do.

The current work dynamics have revealed the mental and physical toll that conventional routines take on individuals. Weekly stats show a 60 per cent disengagement rate, rampant burnout and a glaring mental health crisis in rigid workplaces.

The necessity for a shift was further spotlighted by the pandemic, showcasing the benefits of remote working in fostering a better work-life balance, enhancing productivity and reducing operational costs. This leads us to realising at long last that we must embrace work from anywhere, anytime (WFAA) as the cornerstone of employee care and organisational growth.

WFAA ensures that workspaces and tools for joint work exist, but people aren’t forced to use them in a mandated fashion. Individuals are enabled to work whenever it best fits their own natural flow. Although this poses challenges, most are logistical in nature and entirely solvable, so what’s holding us back? The outrageous amounts of human debt.

I coined the term ‘human debt’ in 2015 to represent the emotional and psychological deficit accrued when businesses prioritise transient gains over human-centric values. Especially post pandemic, leadership actions can either exacerbate or alleviate this debt. Companies that reneged on return-to-office promises after initially offering flexibility have already seen negative impacts on their bottom lines.

Now, technology firms are steering a monumental shift towards full working flexibility. This transition demands the creation of EQed, fearless and intentional tech-led cultures echoing a humans-first mantra.

A tool we make at PeopleNotTech has played a part in curbing burnout, elevating psychological safety and propelling teams to high-performance levels, demonstrating that, if you have the empathy, interest, passion and discipline for doing self, team and organisational human work, then you can move mountains.

So what is there to do? I propose a new era for HR – operational HR, aka active human debt fighting, steering the company, redefining learning and development and ushering in an era of human work. This transition, though vital, presents challenges mainly for a leadership unprepared with the requisite EQ to navigate this novel work paradigm or understand the needs that stem from the famous ‘fluffy’ topics. Operational HR can address this with well-chosen courses on team dynamics, psychological safety and EQ.

Why do all this? Well, the newly conventional 'return to the office or else' mindset alienates a talent pool seeking flexibility, autonomy and a conducive work environment. Recent statistics underline the correlation between work satisfaction and remote work flexibility. The discourse around a four-day work week and its positive implications further accentuates the need for flexibility.

Other interventions such as reduced meetings and protected work times have been trialled, yet they barely scratch the surface if full flexibility isn't the starting point. The essence is to start with WFAA, crafting a collaborative and happy environment around it. It's about creating a culture where flexibility isn't an afterthought but the foundation upon which other organisational dynamics are built.

Leadership's actions in fostering a flexible work culture significantly contribute to human debt. The escalating war on talent underscores the need for flexibility and outdated work models are a surefire way to fall behind.

Embracing WFAA is a holistic approach to addressing human debt, requiring a thorough re-evaluation of organisational values and nurturing a culture of valuing human interaction, psychological safety and a collective growth mindset. The success stories stemming from the adoption of WFAA in technology companies, and the change we have seen coming from using our software, serve as a testimony to the profound impact of a tech-led, human-centric culture.

In conclusion, the transition to full working flexibility is not merely a shift in work location but a paradigm shift in organisational culture. It's about valuing the human element, leveraging technology to foster a conducive work environment and being fearless in embracing change.

The organisations that will thrive are those that reduce human debt, prioritise a flexible, human-centric culture and are prepared to redefine the boundaries of a high-performing, safe and thriving work environment.

Duena Blomstrom is a speaker, technology and culture expert, social entrepreneur and CEO of PeopleNotTech