Even in its meaning, “flexible” is a word that describes itself. Its definition quickly changes depending on who you talk to—especially in the world of work. For some, it could mean having the flexibility to duck out of the office for an afternoon appointment with their dentist without fear of being chastised by their manager. For others, flexibility may entail unlimited vacation time, to be used at their discretion. And increasingly, flexibility is associated with the ability to work remotely—either all the time, or on a hybrid schedule.
When most modern businesses say they offer “flexible working” to their employees, they tend to mean a few things — most notably the option to work on a hybrid schedule. But beyond that, “flexible” has become a sort of shorthand for companies that want to be seen as people-first, the kinds of places that recognize their employees as humans, not machines. Need to block off an hour on your calendar for school pickup in the afternoon? No problem. Want to work remotely for a full two weeks while you visit family out-of-state? We’re cool with that. By identifying as “flexible,” companies are trying to communicate to both current and prospective employees that they understand that sometimes life happens, and establish a relationship built on trust that the work will get done.
Why is it important to be flexible at work?
Every generation of work has faced its own set of workplace challenges, but there’s little doubt that the COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 had a huge impact on the modern working population. Everyone from every level needed to adapt overnight. And many found it surprising how easy it was to change working models so quickly. They also found out how much they liked it
There have been tremendous benefits to adapting to be flexible that people are unwilling to give up. Research has shown that it improves employee well-being, reduces the costs of running an office, increases retention and attraction, and can even give a major boost to productivity. Read more about the benefits of flexible working.
What does it mean for employees?
Being flexible at work when you’re an employee means staying open and creative, mastering the skill of balancing personal requirements with the needs of the company and the demands of co-workers.
It requires keeping skills up to date including the use of communication tools such as Slack or Teams. It needs discipline when working from home, with the ability to switch off the computer when the working day is done. Learning how to be effective in a video conference is also something we’ve all had to come to learn. At the same time, we need to balance home work with the knowledge that in-person meetings can often achieve more than a quick chat online.
Essentially, employees are learning to embrace the flexibility offered by their company and figuring out how to make it work for their careers and lives. Whether that’s flexible hours or hot desking, there are different types of flexible working out there and each can be incorporated into working lives in different ways. As an employee, they may not be able to control policies on flexible working, but they can control how they respond to them.
What does it mean for employers?
Employers have the responsibility to create a company culture that supports employees – not just for altruistic reasons but in order to get the best of them when they’re doing their work.
It’s down to leaders to choose the right kind of flexible working system, and ensure the proper tools and technology are in place to make everything run smoothly. Employers also need to be upfront and give their employees clear expectations. More flexibility is not the same thing as a free-for-all. Employees still need clear guidelines to do their best work.
It also means employers have to listen. Constantly. The needs of people change and the flexible work policy introduced initially may not be meeting those needs any more. Regular surveys and subsequent action based on them is a feature of successful flexible working life.
What does it mean for society?
The widespread adoption of flexible work is having some profound impacts on society as a whole. At the macro level, city centers are quieter during weekdays, retailers are struggling with their usual lunchtime trade and the transport system is struggling to come to terms with the changed flow of commuters.
Therefore for society, flexible working will require a shift. Employees will still be looking for lunch somewhere. Local shops and facilities could benefit as a result. Train and bus time may need to alter once concrete patterns emerge on commuters. The office will require a rethink. Large, monolithic buildings may be seens as a thing of the past, Smaller, adaptable premises will rise in popularity as businesses seek to maximize the cost benefits of flexible working whilst maintaining the capacity for different occasions.
It means the world
Flexible working will mean different things to different people but one thing we can say for sure is that its impact will be felt by all. For better or worse, and in our opinion the good far outweighs the bad, we live in a different world from a few years ago and the possibilities of flexible working are just beginning to be explored.