A flexible work culture is essential to improving employee experience, along with boosting collaboration and innovation in the workplace.
This means flexibility is an invaluable asset. Especially since the Great Resignation is happening in large part due to worker demands for it. Providing a flexible work environment can therefore be key to future-proofing your organization.
Of course, ‘flexibility’ is an expansive concept, and flexible working can look very different from organization to organization.
While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to create more flexibility, there are many best practices that can boost it dramatically.
In this article, we explore the benefits of a more flexible work culture. We also review 11 ways to foster a better culture and create a more flexible work environment.
Free Guide: 6 tactics to improve the employee experience for a hybrid workforce
Flexibility at work is intimately connected to employee well-being and organizational longevity.
Take a comprehensive IWG Global Workplace Survey which found that 80% of workers, when faced with two similar job offers, would turn down the one that didn’t offer flexible working. Also, that the majority of workers would leave their job for another that is more flexible. Or the studies that show that flexibility is important for employee well-being. Clearly, some degree of flexibility is no longer a job perk—it’s a necessity.
Just think about what the word ‘flexibility’ is synonymous with. Resilience, elasticity, and adaptability—all words that describe the companies that survived and even thrived during the pandemic.
So what does it mean to be flexible at work?
It means being resilient enough to react to changing circumstances with grace. It also means being willing and able enough to pivot and adapt as events on the ground dictate.
Note that the willingness to change is just as important to a flexible work culture—if not more so—as the ability to change.
Note, too, that this is not the same thing as being loosey-goosey or carried along by the wind. Workplace flexibility is about being purposeful about all your choices and embracing new challenges. All while staying committed to providing more autonomy and a better work-life balance for your workers.
This can be as simple as providing flexible seating, so that employees can use desk booking software to move around from seat to seat as it makes sense for their day.
It can include opening up more options for remote and/or hybrid work.
Or it can often look like flex-work and other flexible work schedules that give employees more control over their workweeks.
Whatever the scenario, companies that embrace more flexibility can expect a variety of benefits. This can include better staff retention, increased productivity and improved workflows, and happier and healthier team members.
If they use flexible work arrangements that improve space utilization, they may even be able to reduce their real estate portfolio. This can improve cash flow while also reducing their carbon footprint.
Of course, the amount of flexibility a company can offer ‘on the ground’ will depend in large part on their industry.
As we’ll cover below, virtually every company can work on creating a more flexible work culture that will better serve both their workers and their long-term interests.
Many of the staples of a flexible work environment—like flex time, job sharing, and compressed workweeks—simply won’t work for every company. It’s much easier for knowledge workers to have flexible schedules than, say, educators. And remote work just isn’t an option for doctors or lab technicians, for example.
That said, while not every industry can fully embrace telecommuting or all the other tenets of a flexible workplace, every company can foster a more flexible work culture.
Remember that company culture is about the shared attitudes, behaviors, and values of everyone in an organization. And it starts from the top down.
That means that organizations looking to create a more flexible work culture need to start with trusting their employees to do their best work, and treating them like adults who will take personal responsibility for their work.
A flexible work culture is ultimately one that builds in as much flexibility as possible given their work realities, prioritizes employee engagement and work-life balance, takes employee feedback seriously, and remains open to change.
Like workplace strategist Angie Earlywine, Senior Director in the Total Workplace division of Global Occupier Services at Cushman & Wakefield, stresses, the pandemic has taught us that, contrary to some long standing myths, remote work can actually be just as productive, if not more so, than in-office work.
“So if there’s still an issue around trust,” she says, “it’s usually rooted in the culture. Most people do the right thing. They enjoy the work that they’re doing. The labor market is too competitive now to not be doing what you love. Or to work for a company that you don’t believe in.”
Specifically, the following 11 steps focus on a choice-drive strategy that can help create a more flexible work culture:
First and foremost, employees from all generations in the workplace want to be treated like adults. They want to work for organizations that recognize that they have a life outside the office walls.
Employees therefore need as much autonomy as possible over how they work. Additionally, employers should trust them to find the right solution for their working environment.
This means that when possible, they should be able to work where and when they want.
In fact, according to Cushman & Wakefield’s industry-leading Experience per Square Foot™ workplace survey, employee experience scores jump from 45% to 74% when companies give employees control over their own schedules.
“That’s a significant finding that shouldn’t be ignored,” says Earlywine.
Given the benefits of working remotely, workers who can work from home should be able to if they so prefer.
Similarly, as we’ll explore further, implementing a hybrid office can be a boon for the many workers who would like to come into the office sometimes. Just not every day.
“For the majority of industries that are able to embrace flexible work, the office is becoming more of a destination,” says OfficeSpace CEO David Cocchiara. “Employees don’t go there just because they have to be there. They go because there’s something they’re trying to accomplish. Whether that’s collaboration with another team or within their team, planning, reviews, brainstorming and similar activities.
Companies may therefore want to bring in new hybrid working tools to support their teams.
If embracing flexible work hours is feasible, workers should be able to set the hours that work best for them.
Note that alternative schedules like the four-day work week are also becoming increasingly popular. This may help more industries provide more work flexibility than they’ve been able to in the past.
Similarly, companies need to trust their employees to have the necessary intelligence and knowledge to work in the best way possible, given their own abilities, duties, and preferences. They should therefore enable employees to introduce and change procedures that aren’t working or could use improvements.
Remember, your workers are the experts in their role and field of work—they know what’s working and what’s not. One of the best ways to create a more flexible work culture is therefore to allow people to evolve their role and responsibilities as they see fit.
“If there’s still an issue around trust, it’s usually rooted in the culture.”Angie Earlywine
“If there’s still an issue around trust, it’s usually rooted in the culture.”
We all know the saying: with great power comes great responsibility. If companies give employees more autonomy and freedom, then that also needs to be accompanied by greater personal responsibility on their part.
In other words, if you’re trusting employees to be more responsible, they need to step up to the proverbial plate. If their managers aren’t happy with something, they should share their concerns in a productive way. And when things are working, employees should receive feedback that emphasizes their success.
Thankfully, this is usually an ‘if you build it, they will come’ scenario. Like we keep saying, employees are also adults. They’ll welcome the respect—and duties—that comes with their company treating them as such.
Meanwhile, in order for employees to take real responsibility, they also need to know what they’re taking responsibility for. That means you need to clearly communicate objectives, including being specific about the results and outcomes you’re expecting.
Do your employees know exactly what the company expects of them? From the amount of work they need to do, to the amount of time they should spend available either in the office space or on Zoom, it’s essential that everyone knows explicitly what their job entails.
This will look different for each company, of course. Some will have strict deadlines and check-in dates, while others can have a more flexible work policy.
Whatever the case, being a stickler when it comes to objectives can actually create a more flexible work culture. This is because people know what the company expects of them and trust them to figure out the best way to get there and do the job.
Ideally, this will include employee performance reviews, as well as opportunities for employees to also provide feedback.
Trusting people and encouraging personal responsibility is all well and good. But ultimately, employee experience and employee engagement are only as good as the quality of staff.
Are you hiring the right people for the right roles? Is there a way to measure potential culture fit? For example, some employers use surveys to determine if an employee will be a good match for their company.
Companies should also be upfront about culture and environment from the get-go. This will help to ensure they’re attracting the self-starters and highly motivated people who will fit in with their flexible company culture.
“There may be some tension initially between employees and employers as their desires for a certain style and application may not match,” says Cocchiara. “And from my perspective, that’s totally ok. I think workplace style is becoming just another qualifier that people consider when they’re searching for jobs. And employers will have to be clear with their candidates about the way they work.”
Employers will have to be clear with their candidates about the way they work.DAVID COCCHIARA, CEO, OfficeSpace
Employers will have to be clear with their candidates about the way they work.
And of course, even the best and brightest people won’t make up for a lack of training.
This means that everyone on your team needs the necessary training and knowledge to do their jobs well.
Note that this includes proper training on how to use all the tools and technology necessary to do their job.
For example, like we’ll cover more below, one of the most popular flexible work options is to provide flexible seating.
But if employees don’t know how to easily reserve workstations, then the benefits of that flexible work option go right out the window.
Remember, too, that culture starts from the top down. And new studies are showing what we’ve all really known for awhile. Employees want managers with an empathetic and supportive attitude.
If someone is leading a team, but has never had any leadership training or experience, their team may be unsuccessful at no fault of their own. That said, managing a flexible team, especially a hybrid or distributed workforce, presents many unique challenges—even for weathered in-office managers.
That’s why companies should ensure managers receive training and support on an ongoing basis. Especially if they are making the switch to managing either part-time or full-time remote workers.
Learn how Syneos Health safely managed key locations throughout the pandemic
Sticking with the theme of trusting employees and treating them like adults… How many adults actually enjoy sitting in endless meetings? If people are showing up late to meetings or if you’re experiencing low engagement, there’s likely a reason.
Specifically, even before the pandemic, 67% of workers reported being prevented from real work due to excessive meetings. Add in hassle and confusion often associated with hybrid meetings, and you’ve got a recipe for low morale and disaffected workers.
When you hold meetings to resolve issues that could be handled via email or Slack, you’re wasting people’s time and cutting into work they’d rather (and should) be doing.
And when their time is wasted, they come out of meetings feeling drained and unenthusiastic. The blow to employee morale is often not worth whatever was accomplished otherwise.
That’s why companies looking to improve their culture should consider limiting meetings to essential personnel and placing hard time limits.
Given the world of options now available, there’s no possible justification for not ensuring everyone on your team has access to the technology that makes communication and collaboration easy.
This can and should look like the right combination of:
When it’s easy for everyone, including remote workers, to communicate both in real-time and asynchronously, they can begin to build the community and trust that is needed for true flexibility.
A collaborative culture requires collaboration. The more companies can encourage more collaboration in the workplace, specifically between IT, HR, and facility management (FM) departments, the more everyone benefits.
This will often look like HR working closely with employees to collect feedback, as well as to survey what changes they would like to see. HR can then funnel their findings to FMs, who can use them to create better workplace strategies—which IT can then help roll out. The more this feedback loop can be reinforced, the better.
You need to be able to evaluate feedback from your pulse checks, make sure that you understand the ideal state for your team, and acknowledge that what worked for your team on month one of your return to office journey may differ six months down the road. It’s okay if your approach to what works best for your team changes over time.Angie Earlywine
You need to be able to evaluate feedback from your pulse checks, make sure that you understand the ideal state for your team, and acknowledge that what worked for your team on month one of your return to office journey may differ six months down the road. It’s okay if your approach to what works best for your team changes over time.
A big part of collaboration in the office will include HR collecting what Earlywine calls ‘pulse checks’ from everyone on the team. Not only can capturing employee sentiment improve company culture, it can also help reduce organizational risk.
“It’s best to conduct employee surveys and focus groups regularly to check in with everyone in real time,” says Earlywine. “Then adjust based on that feedback.”
The antidote to figuring out how to reduce risk is in ensuring you’re aligned with employee sentiment and the company’s vision for supporting a hybrid work environment.Angie Earlywine
The antidote to figuring out how to reduce risk is in ensuring you’re aligned with employee sentiment and the company’s vision for supporting a hybrid work environment.
Finally, even in the most traditional office, employees need access to digital workplace solutions that help them stay connected and productive. It’s certainly not rocket science that employees need good tools to do their work well, or that it should be easy to access them.
While these digital tools are necessary in virtually all workspaces, they’re also particularly important for creating a true flexible work environment, as we’ll cover below.
The terms ‘work culture’ and ‘work environment’ are often used interchangeably, given their overlapping natures.
That said, the work environment is really just one aspect of company culture.
When considering the working environment, we’re usually talking about what affects employee satisfaction and productivity, along with how they actually do their jobs.
In other words, the work environment refers to all the tangible things like desks and meeting room design and all the intangible things like hybrid schedules and facility planning that affect when, where and how employees work.
Remember, every company can foster a more flexible work culture.
The degree to which they are able to create a truly flexible environment will vary, depending on their workforce.
Knowledge workers are usually able to embrace the flexible work options, meaning they may find themselves in radically flexible work environments.
Financial workers, on the other hand, along with others reliant on an apprenticeship model that requires face-to-face interactions, may have less options—as will industries like health care, education, manufacturing, and some customer service.
Regardless, any companies that are looking to create a more flexible work environment should start with improving their flexible work culture.
From there, they should try to develop, where possible, a hybrid workplace solution that serves both their needs and those of their employees.
Driven by employee sentiment, they should consider and provide a variety of work environment types, such as agile working, activity-based working (or ABW, best realized with specific activity-based workspace design), and office neighborhoods (drawing inspiration from a variety of office neighborhood examples).
Finally, flexible work environments can quickly and easily become unmanageable without the proper tools and technology.
That’s why the final critical element of a flexible environment is providing tools and technology that make it easy to use all aspects of the office.
Specifically, IT should collaborate with facility managers and workplace leaders to ensure the workplace is equipped with the following:
The biggest challenge to implementing a flexible work environment is not having a flexible work culture. And the only way to have a flexible work culture is to trust employees and give them all the tools they need to succeed.
Discover the four models companies are using to adapt to hybrid work—and how to make them work for you.
Photos: Tempura, Explora_2005, RODNAE Productions, Andrea Piacquadio