The COVID-19 pandemic has irrevocably changed the way we work. With lockdowns and social distancing measures forcing companies to adopt remote and hybrid work models, employees got a taste of flexibility that many don’t want to give up.
In fact, according to a report by hiring software company Greenhouse, 76% of employees say they would quit if their company eliminated flexible work policies post-pandemic. I believe it, having done numerous internal surveys and focus groups at companies that I helped transition to hybrid work. I spoke with Donald Knight, Chief People Officer at Greenhouse, to get insight into why flexibility has become so important for today’s workforce.
Employees Have Embraced the Productivity of Flexible Work
As Knight explained, the pandemic gave employees the opportunity to reimagine work and their relationship with employers. Remote and hybrid models enabled continued productivity — and in some cases, revenues actually grew during lockdowns. Employees recognized they could work productively without commuting to an office every single day.
The benefits of flexibility became clear: no wasted time commuting, more control over your schedule, better work-life balance. After experiencing this, employees don’t want to go back to the old way of rigid 9-to-5 office-based work. For many, giving up flexibility is a deal-breaker.
Leadership Resistance to Change
Despite the proven productivity of flexible work, many companies are still mandating return-to-office policies. Knight identified three key reasons why leaders resist embracing flexibility:
1. Proven past success with in-office work
Some leaders like Elon Musk built their empires through in-office collaboration. They believe physical proximity drove their accomplishments. Changing what worked could feel risky.
2. Hesitance to be early adopters
Leaders who didn’t enjoy remote work themselves may want to see more evidence before fully embracing flexibility. They don’t want to be guinea pigs.
3. Preference for in-office work
Some leaders simply work better in a traditional office environment. They incorrectly assume all employees share their preference.
While these perspectives are understandable, Knight emphasized leaders must adapt their style to meet the changing needs and preferences of today’s talent pool.
One Size Doesn’t Fit All
Rigid policies that force everyone back to the office full-time ignore the reality that people have diverse needs. As Knight said, “Flexibility for those individuals are like, ‘Hey, as long as team meetings are available during the core hours, where we can work across time zones, and collaborate, or co-create together…that’s the flexibility they’re looking for.'”
Organizations must define what flexibility means for their culture and people. They can’t take a one-size-fits-all approach – flexibility will look different for each employee.
Rethink the Purpose of the Office
I discussed with Knight that when developing flexible policies, leaders should start by asking: “What is the office for anyway?”
Offices work well for:
- In-person collaboration
- Mentoring and training
- Nuanced conversations
- Social bonding
But they’re ineffective for heads-down individual work like writing, design, and reading, which remote employees can do more productively at home without distractions.
Most employees only need around 1-2 days in the office per week for those high-value collaborative activities. Mandating more days just to have people in seats is counterproductive.
The Office as Social Hub
Looking ahead, Knight envisions offices transforming into “social hubs” for bonding while preserving flexibility:
“Gone will be the days where you see the marketing team only sitting with the marketing team, people team only with the people team. When you come to the office, this is going to be a place where people across departments can come together.”
This social approach with a remote/hybrid foundation can provide the best of both worlds.
Key Takeaways for Leaders
To attract and retain top talent in today’s market, leaders must:
- Audit and update policies to enable flexibility based on what works best for each employee’s role and needs.
- Clarify the purpose of the office as a collaborative/social hub, not for individual work.
- Recognize that flexibility is a must-have for the vast majority of employees today across generations.
Rigid policies mandating full-time office work will lead to attrition. As Knight emphasized, “They are watching…where they want to park their time, talent and treasure.”
The takeaway is clear: embracing flexibility in the post-pandemic era is imperative for hiring and retaining the best people. Companies that refuse to adapt are destined to lose talent to forward-thinking competitors. The time is now for leaders to reimagine their policies and culture to enable the future of flexible work.
Image credit: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Originally published in Disaster Avoidance Experts on May 27, 2023