The workplace is undergoing a massive transformation. As technology enables more remote and hybrid work, flexibility has become crucial for both companies and employees. I recently spoke with Karen Cho, Chief Human Resources Officer at Designer Brands, about her company’s pioneering transition to flexible work.
The Flexibility Benefit
Cho has seen firsthand how flexibility benefits both companies and employees. For employees, it means greater work-life balance, increased productivity, and access to more opportunities. They can avoid lengthy commutes and work hours that best align with their energy and priorities. Employees who want more flexibility are often extremely driven and adept at managing their own time.
For companies, flexibility opens up a larger talent pool, leads to higher retention, and cuts costs. “If we require employees to relocate or come into an office every day, we lose access to highly skilled, diverse candidates,” Cho says. “When people have the flexibility to do work they love in the way they want, they tend to be incredibly loyal and productive.”
Cultural Shift Required
However, embracing flexibility requires a cultural shift. Cho says flexible companies focus on results over hours spent at a desk. They also invest in digital infrastructure and managerial training to build trust and effectiveness in dispersed teams. Managers must adopt a “situational” leadership style, tailoring their approach to individual employees and tasks. Regular check-ins, clear expectations, and performance management based on output rather than hours worked are key.
Cho’s words resonated with me: that’s what my clients find when I help them transition to a flexible return to office and hybrid work. Focusing on a culture of “Excellence from Anywhere” rather than “butts in seats” and measuring performance in a transparent manner is the key to the future of work.
“Leading teams remotely requires different skills,” Cho says. “Not everyone needs the same level of involvement or craves the same type of interaction.” Surveys and one-on-one conversations can help determine what motivates each employee. Some may crave more social interaction, while others prefer less. Effective flexible managers adapt to these needs and preferences.
For Cho, the future is clear. “Flexible work is an evolution, not a fad. The traditional office will continue to evolve to meet employee needs, as coming into the office will be by choice, not requirement.” She believes virtual interactions can be even more meaningful than in-person ones. Video calls where everyone turns on their camera help create a sense of equal presence and participation, no matter where individuals are located.
Learning to Let Go
Cho recommends starting with a pilot program and learning as you go. She already allowed some HR staff members who experienced major life transitions to work full-time remotely before the pandemic in order to keep them in the company. In fact, she worked remotely as an employee at Apple for 11 years before coming to Designer Brands. So she had a basis to build on before the pandemic.
The sudden remote shift was still very hard. “We didn’t know how it would turn out, so we listened, learned, and course-corrected along the way.” Surveys, focus groups, and employee feedback have been crucial to Designer Brands’ successful transition. When the pandemic forced Designer Brands to shift to remote work, they found employees were just as productive, if not more so.
An internal survey revealed that 96% wanted to come to the office no more than one day a week even after offices reopened. Based on this enthusiasm, they decided to hire for fully remote roles and not require remote-capable employees to return to offices full-time. “Coming into the office is now by choice, not requirement, and people choose to come in when they want to connect with colleagues or clients face to face,” Cho says.
Redesigning for the Future
They have also redesigned their offices to better support flexibility, adding more collaborative spaces and technology that enables hybrid meetings, with some attendees in-person and some remote. “The technology in our conference rooms now allows everyone equal participation, whether they are physically present or not.”
The future of work is flexible, and the companies that embrace this evolution will thrive. As Cho says, “The future has already arrived for those with the courage to embrace flexibility and trust their teams.” With the right mindset and tools, any company can make a successful transition to flexible work. The benefits are well worth the investment in cultural change and digital infrastructure.
Flexibility, it seems, is the new currency of work, and one that will only gain more value over time. Employees want more autonomy and control over their schedules, and technology has made that possible. While the transition requires substantial effort, flexible work leads to a more engaged, productive, and innovative workforce.
As businesses compete in an increasingly global talent market, flexibility may well be their key advantage. The companies that welcome this “new normal” will be poised to attract and retain the top candidates of the future. For any organization, the question is not whether to embrace flexible work but how quickly and comprehensively they can do so. The future of work has arrived, and it is flexible in more ways than one.
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Image credit: Andrea Piacquadio/Pexels
Originally published in Disaster Avoidance Experts on May 14, 2023