The way we work is changing, and fast.
COVID certainly accelerated the shift, but it was going in this direction anyway. For many companies, attitudes and policies surrounding remote work and flexible scheduling have progressed from reluctant necessity to broad acceptance, all in less than 18 months.
As business leaders, we’ve learned that our employees can be consistently productive outside the office, effectively work with colleagues and clients remotely, and continue to develop new business without being in the same room with prospects.
As employees, we adapted to not being located with our team members and developed the discipline required to succeed outside the office. Many experienced an unanticipated sense of freedom: no daily commute, more flexibility, and the latitude to be presentable from just the waist up. (Personally, eliminating shoes from my everyday wardrobe was highly liberating.)
Some companies are signaling their intention to get people back into the office when it’s safe again, but the change in how we work and how companies think about their workforces is already here to stay. The toothpaste is out of the tube. Employees are making life-changing decisions regarding how they want to work, and businesses will need to adapt.
This is just the beginning of what I believe is a trend towards accommodating employees’ work preferences over businesses across industries. For instance, over the past 18 months, several Fíonta team members decided to move out of the DC area to escape the high cost of city living, support their partner’s career, or simply improve their quality of life.
As a partially remote company, we were fully supportive of those folks — and we’ve since announced that coming to the office is optional for everyone going forward. A not-so-obvious benefit of this policy is it levels the playing field for local and remote staff and eliminates the concern that those in HQ are more in the loop. We still have an office, but it’s possible that someday we won’t, and we’ll be able to consider more in-person corporate get-togethers.
Over the pandemic, we’ve also supported employees who needed to reduce their work schedules or flex their hours to manage COVID-related challenges such as providing care for elders or having children learning from home. We’re now launching a pilot to support those who want to work a reduced schedule indefinitely.
Why are we talking about allowing our team to work where, when, and how much they want? We’re certainly more enlightened now, but it’s also good business. This year our industry has experienced a shortage of talent as companies ramp back up, and employees who needed stability in a time of uncertainty are now on the move. Recruiting and retention are top priorities. While compensating people well obviously matters, businesses that are innovative enough to offer their workforce flexibility will have a distinct advantage.
What can business leaders expect? Don’t be surprised when many of your employees resist coming back to the office or have different work-life priorities. They’ve had 18 months to settle into new routines that they prefer over the old ones. It’s possible some people may request permanent alternative working arrangements, such as working full time over four days a week or working less with a reduced salary.
Frankly, your employees have more bargaining power, and other businesses in your industry may be moving more quickly than you. You should plan now rather than hastily implement a policy under the duress of increasing attrition. I have three recommendations as you put your policies together:
- Trust. If you still aren’t confident after 18 months that your team can be productive remotely, then maybe something else is wrong. The best practice is to establish written, measurable expectations with your staff about what they’re accountable for so you can objectively assess their performance in or away from the office.
- Operationalize. A very real challenge of having a workforce with diverse work arrangements is ensuring the business can function effectively. Reduced staff availability and less in-person engagement impact team collaboration; replacing full-time roles with less-than-fulltime roles forces companies to adapt to ensure that business doesn’t suffer and their workforces are managed equitably. What worked in the past may not work in the future, so you need to rethink how the business operates and implement new tools and practices to maximize your staff in this new world order.
- Financial Analysis. The financial impact of having a greater percentage of your staff working less than full time is material. An employee working 32 hours per week has a pro-rated salary. Still, the costs of health insurance, training, infrastructure, or other benefits will likely not automatically scale, so the productivity/cost ratio will be inconsistent across your workforce. It’s fair to consider reducing benefits or increasing contribution levels to neutralize the cost impact.
Lastly, some employees may not be good candidates for remote work or alternative schedules. Some employees may be unable to fulfill the requirements of their roles working part-time or non-standard hours. Minimal tenure or past performance issues may also be of concern. Treating people fairly does not mean treating them the same, so it’s okay to put conditions in place before approving new work arrangements.
For example, you might require employment with the company for six months or a full year so new employees can establish a performance track record. Start every arrangement with a trial period and reserve the right to revoke the privilege at any time if it’s clear it’s not working out or if it’s not sustainable. Err on the side of the employee if they make a strong case for how it could work.
A fundamental change in the way we work is upon us, and it’s too early to predict where we’ll end up. At Fíonta, we’re committed to meeting our employees where they are and adapting our business models to maintain our culture and remain competitive.
Let me know what you think and how you’re adapting your policies, and if there’s interest, I’ll publish a follow-up to share how others are handling these changes. mpatterson at fionta.com (no solicitations please).