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Welcome to the new ways of working: flexibility, trust and empowerment

The pandemic has given people a taste of a more flexible working life. And they like what they’ve seen.

In July and August 2021, when the Future Forum Pulse survey asked 10,000 knowledge workers in Australia, the US, Germany, Japan, France, and the UK what mattered to them regarding job satisfaction, flexibility was high on most people’s lists.

But it wasn’t just flexibility about where they worked (important to 76% of respondents); even more important was when they worked: 93% said this was a big deal, making it the second-most important element of job satisfaction after compensation.

Most people want to spend some time in the office and some at home, says Chris Mattey, managing director and partner with Boston Consulting Group, which collaborated with Slack to produce the Future Forum. But simply telling them they can have two days at home and three back in the office, doing the old 9-to-5, isn’t going to work.

“Why does it have to be 9 to 5?” Mattey asks. “Why can’t I come in early or come in late or go home early or go home late? And why do I have to travel when everyone travels, which is grotesquely inefficient, because there’s lots of traffic and it takes lots of time – that’s just dumb. Why don’t we think about being much more adaptive and flexible with when we choose to come in and how we choose to come in?”

If employers want to keep their workers happy, they need to explain why they want them in the office, Mattey says.

“We have this concept of called ‘purposeful collaboration’, which is people coming together, but for a reason,” he says. “And that’s really important in the new world … Most people are actually fine coming in … as long as it’s for a reason. What they hate is just being told just to come in for the sake of it.

“If you say, I want you to come in because it’s important for this workshop, we collaborate like this, it’s important for the apprenticeship of your teams, we need to do training with you, and all that adds up to about three days a week, they’re totally fine.”

Trust is paramount

Mattey says a couple of false narratives are doing the rounds. One is that everyone wants to work from home all the time. “Then there’s a misconception from employers that people will just be sitting watching Netflix all day,” he says. “Both are false.”

Trust is going to be a vital enabler of the new work environment, Mattey says.

Whenever, wherever or however they’re working, employees want to be trusted. When they are, the benefits can be profound: research points to the importance of trusting employees if you want them to perform at their best – and retain their services.

After all, no one likes to be micromanaged, work under a suspicious boss or be judged on how much time they spend at their screen (rather than how genuinely productive they are). People want to be treated like grown-ups.

Julia Richardson, a professor of human resource management and head of the School of Management and Marketing at Curtin University, says: “Employees want collegiality, they want flexibility. They want empowerment, and they want authenticity in the workplace. And there’s increasing information that they’re not willing to be stressed out all the time. They’re not willing to do these hugely long hours.”

Many employers will have to seriously change their thinking if they are to meet these needs, Richardson says.

“I think it’s a complete paradigm shift. They have to recognise that ultimately, organisations are made of people. You’ve got to keep people happy. You’ve got to keep them empowered.”

Balancing act

Giving employees the flexibility, trust and empowerment that they want no longer looks like an optional extra.

In what has been dubbed “the Great Resignation”, an estimated 40% of global workers are considering quitting their jobs. People are reassessing their lives, and in many cases aren’t willing to put up with bosses who don’t treat them like real people: a recent survey for EY found that many Americans had quit their previous job because their boss wasn’t empathetic to their struggles at work (54%) or in their personal lives (49%).

Richardson believes workers are in an excellent position to get what they want. “It’s a seller’s market,” she says. “It’s the knowledge economy. Getting the right employee, getting talented employees, is absolutely critical. I think the power is shifting to the employees.”

So are employers on board? Ready to embrace flexibility to make the hybrid workplace work? Yes and no, says Mattey.

“There’s quite a big spectrum here,” he says. “At one end, characterised by (but not limited to) tech companies, is a ‘do what you want’ attitude, giving workers huge levels of flexibility. At the other end of the spectrum is ‘get everyone back five days a week, let’s go back to how things were’ … that’s the investment banks, typically, but not just them. And there’s a population that’s not quite sure yet.”

Further complicating matters when it comes to being flexible is that each individual wants something different. “Everyone has very different needs,” Mattey says. “But the business has its needs too, and everyone with these different needs has to work together in teams to get outcomes for a business. So the real challenge is how do you get all of that optimised so that individuals can get some of the outcomes they want but also the business gets its outcomes, too.

“If you just optimise for the business, you get annoyed employees. If you just optimise for each individual employee, it’s very unlikely you’re going to get the right outcomes for the business. There’s somewhere in between that starts to make sense.”

How technology and the pandemic have changed the workplace for good

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