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  • Writer's pictureMbali Chaise

Flexibility vs. Flex-washing: Embracing the Future of Work

In today's ever-evolving work landscape, flexibility has become a buzzword, promising a better work-life balance and increased productivity. But is your organisation deeply committed to supporting flexible workstyles, or is it simply a deceptive lure? Let us explore how you can ensure that flexibility is more than just a superficial perk and instead a thriving element of your business strategy.

Workplace flexibility is not a one-size-fits-all approach; it exists on a spectrum.

To create an operational model that offers the right level of flexibility for your company, it is crucial to deeply understand its unique needs. Take a comprehensive review of your products, services, business goals, processes, and the day-to-day activities of distinct roles. By doing so, you can inform the model that will truly benefit the future of your organisation.

In our conversations with clients and business leaders, we have observed two distinct camps: those genuinely committed to incorporating flexibility and those engaging in what we call "flex-washing." Flex-washing involves leveraging surface-level flexibility to attract and retain talent without investing in the necessary infrastructure to support and fully embrace flexible working. This often leads to confusion among employees and a return to outdated solutions when faced with challenges.

Let us dive into two contrasting quotations that exemplify these two camps:

"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 to be in the office three days a week; can you let us know what changes we need to make to entice people back?"

What we have observed is a shift over time. In Q1 of 2022, many leaders expressed anxiety about a full return to the office. However, by Q4 of the same year, our interviews with twenty top businesses and clients revealed a trend of embracing new forms of flexibility without formalising their future business models.

For numerous organisations in the US, flexibility was initially viewed as a short-term strategy to navigate the pandemic's onset. Consequently, rapidly changing operating models have proven challenging for organisations that may not fully commit to long-term flexibility.

In Europe, Activity Based Working (ABW) has long been the standard in many workplaces. Employees enjoy enriched work environments that enable internal and external mobility, aligning with the principles of agile working. Diversifying working hours and embracing asynchronous working can significantly enhance employee output and facilitate the management of personal responsibilities both in and out of the office. By allowing individuals to tackle activities during their peak performance times, productivity and effectiveness can be greatly improved. Top organisations have adopted asynchronous communication tools and team agreements to support this flexible approach.

Diversifying Working Hours

Moreover, asynchronous work reduces the need for certain types of meetings and promotes more equitable opportunities for contribution, particularly for less vocal employees. The ability to choose when to work asynchronously, in-person, or live virtually can enhance work quality and foster higher productivity and improved employee morale. Embracing new models of work that prioritise location flexibility, along with progressive parameters for time and days, can provide companies with a competitive advantage in attracting and retaining top talent from wider geographic and demographic pools.

Defining the process

To successfully navigate flexibility, it is essential to define processes for both dispersed and in-person interactions. These processes not only create valuable efficiencies for employees but also ensure that company values are woven into activities and interactions. Many companies, especially those spanning multiple time zones, locations, or large campuses, have already experienced some degree of dispersed work. Prior to the pandemic, relationships were not confined to a single location, as employees often collaborated with and learned from teammates outside of their own office.

Regardless of where your organisation currently stands on the spectrum of flexibility, it is vital to incorporate learnings from dispersed and remote teams into your operating strategy and managerial approach. Managers must be aware of visibility bias when it comes to remote and dispersed team members. Evidence shows that without awareness, careers may suffer due to a lack of in-person interactions with a manager. Managing flexible working styles is a new skill for many, requiring continuous learning and development.

Taking Action

Managing flexibility in teams involves co-creation, setting clear objectives, and identifying desired outcomes. By creating agreements with teams regarding etiquette, behaviours, and expectations, employees are given a framework to be effective in their roles and formalise boundaries that support flexibility. Bridging knowledge and experience gaps for managers helps reduce visibility bias, enhances team effectiveness, and improves employee experiences, regardless of their location. Managerial upskilling, including training for dispersed workforce management, equips managers with critical skills that benefit their direct reports and contribute to the organisation's overall health. The Knight Index serves as a useful assessment tool to identify areas requiring upskilling for managers and leaders to operate successfully in a flexible work environment.

Also, workplace consultants can be invaluable facilitators in this process, helping map an organisation's collaborative activities and interactions across different horizontals and verticals to ensure all working arrangements are included.

So in conclusion...

Remember, the most effective level of flexibility for your organisation will be unique, influenced by your products or services, organisational goals, processes, and the day-to-day activities of various roles. Integrating this knowledge into policies, practices, and facilities can elevate flexibility from being seen as merely an applied perk (a deceptive lure) to a strategic advantage that propels your business forward.

So, as you reflect on your organisation's approach to flexibility, consider the lessons from those fully committed to embracing the future of work. Embrace the power of flexibility, redefine your operational model, and seize the opportunities presented by hybrid, remote, and in-person work models. Your employees, your organisation, and your bottom line will thank you for it.


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