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  • Writer's pictureLauren Pollack

Flexibility vs. Flex-washing

Updated: May 17, 2023

Join us as we explore five key trends we are seeing at the start of 2023. See the five trends here!

Does your company support flexibility or is this perk a honey trap?

Misalignment between communications and infrastructure creates uncertainty. Here are some methods to ensure you are supporting flexible workstyles and maximizing opportunities for success with hybrid, remote, and in-person models.

Workplace flexibility exists on a spectrum. Creating an operational model that offers the right level of flexibility for your organization comes from deeply understanding the needs of your organization. A review of your products, services, organizational goals, processes, and day-to-day activities of roles will inform the model that will benefit the future of the organization.

Through conversations with clients and business leaders, it is evident that some organizations are committed to incorporating flexibility into their operations, while other organizations are leaning toward "flex-washing."

"Flex-washing" can include leveraging surface level flexibility for attraction and retention, without developing the necessary infrastructure to enable or enjoy the full benefits of flexible working. This leads to a lack of clarity for employees and a return to outdated solutions when the road gets bumpy.

The quotations below illustrate the two camps described above:

  • “We know we’re not going back to the office; we’re working with our 'People' team to create a strategy for our spaces that supports our remote first operations.”

  • “Our CEO has mandated everyone is in 3 days a week; can you let us know what we need to change, so people want to come back in?”

In Q1 of 2022, the leaders we interviewed, expressed anxiety about making a full return to the office. By Q4 of 2022, our interviews with twenty top businesses and clients, showed a trend in embracing new forms of flexibility, without formalizing their future business model.

For many organizations in the U.S., flexibility was meant to be a short-term strategy to navigate the onset of the pandemic. As a result, rapidly changing operating models have been challenging for organizations, who may or may not have committed to the change as a long-term strategy.

Activity Based Working has been the standard for many workplaces in Europe, where employees enjoy enriched workplaces that enable internal mobility and corporate guidelines that support external mobility, in alignment with the principles of agile working.

Diversifying Working Hours

Time flexibility or asynchronous working can enhance employee output and allow people to find ease in the management of their work and personal responsibilities, in and out of the office. When given the opportunity to tackle an activity at personal peak performance times, productivity and effectiveness can be improved. Asynchronous communication tools and team agreements support this style of flexibility are used by most top organizations.

Asynchronous work can reduce the need for certain types of meetings and provide more equitable opportunities for contribution, especially from less vocal employees. Opportunities to choose when it is most impactful to work asynchronously, in-person, or live virtually, can enhance work quality as well as the experience of the team. This has the potential to foster higher productivity and improved employee morale.

New models of work built on location flexibility and including progressive parameters for time and days, have been shown to give companies an advantage for attracting and retaining top employees. We are seeing these organizations benefiting from access to wider geographic and demographic talent pools, than location specific roles.

Defining Processes

Defining processes for dispersed and in-person interactions, creates valuable efficiencies for employees, and are key to ensuring company values are woven into activities and interactions.

Many organizations, particularly those that span across multiple time zones, locations, or large campuses experience some degree of dispersed work. While locations may have been fixed, relationships have not been confined to a single location. Many employees report collaborating with and learning from teammates outside of their office, prior to the pandemic.

Regardless of where your organization lands on the spectrum of flexibility, it is beneficial to include learnings from dispersed and remote teams into your operating strategy and managerial learning.

Visibility bias is a concern for managers of remote and dispersed team members. Evidence shows that without awareness, careers may suffer from lack of in-person interactions with a manager. Creating, managing, and supporting flexible working styles is a new skill to many, requiring learning and development.

Taking Action

Co-creating, agreeing, setting clear objectives, and identifying desired outcomes, is the cornerstone of managing flexibility in teams. Creating agreements with teams regarding etiquette, behaviors, and expectations can give employees a framework to be effective in their role and formalize boundaries that support flexibility.

Filling in knowledge and experience gaps for managers reduces visibility bias, enhances team effectiveness, and employee experience regardless of their location. Managerial upskilling, to include trainings for dispersed workforce management, can provide managers with critical skills that benefit their reports and the health of the organization. The Knight

Index is a useful assessment tool to identify the areas of upskilling required for managers and leaders to operate successfully in a flexible work environment.

Workplace Consultants are a useful asset to the team as facilitators of this process; including mapping an organization’s collaborative activities and interactions across verticals to ensure all working arrangements are included.

The most effective level of flexibility for your organization will be unique, affected by your products or services, organizational goals, and processes, as well as day-to-day activities of roles. Integrating this knowledge into policy, practices, and facilities can take flexibility from an applied perk (honey trap) to a business strategy.


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