Designing a sustainable, flexible work strategy

June 25, 2021

Designing a sustainable, flexible work strategy

The evolution toward more flexible work arrangements had been gaining momentum long before the COVID-19 pandemic.

Conversations had already started at annual employee reviews and after engagement surveys, showing that employees desire better work-life balance. Organizations have offered flexible working arrangements as a unique benefit to differentiate their brand value and retain employees.

The COVID-19 pandemic forced companies to experiment with workplace flexibility across the organization. For many, remote work became the norm rather than the exception, with most findings suggesting that flexible working can work.

Nearly 90% of the organizations studied in Mercer's research intend to embrace flexible working arrangements on a grander scale post pandemic, with almost 1 in 3 organizations anticipating half or more of their workforce to work remotely after the COVID-19 pandemic, compared to 1 in 30 before its start. Workplace norms and employee expectations are changing rapidly and the days of using flexible work as a differentiator are likely long past.

Flexibility is proving to be one of the cornerstones of workforce transformation, as organizations use this time to reset and reinvent. To create a sustainable flexible work plan, it is essential to take a step back to assess what the organization hopes to accomplish with the program and then to identify which flexibility model can achieve those outcomes. Flexible work hours and remote work are just two components of a flexible work policy that can support employee work-life balance. Selecting the best flexibility model requires an examination of work, people, programs, and infrastructure. Organizations that complete this strategic assessment will be better positioned to develop alternative work arrangements to drive the desired outcomes.

Define your flexible work strategy

The flexible working experience during COVID-19 will not be the flexible working practices of the future. Organizations should be conscious that decisions made as an immediate response to COVID-19 will not be sufficient to establish a sustainable program that meets the longer term needs of the organization and its employees. Answers to the following three critical questions will help form the basis of a strategy that is specific to the organization.

What flexibility is possible?

Experience has shown that all jobs can flex in some way but it is important to consider precisely how specific jobs can flex productively for the business and individual employees to make them successful in the long term. Flexible work arrangements can come in many different forms. Determining what flexible work program is possible requires examining the work and its capacity to flex across multiple dimensions, such as where, when, how, what, and who. After the recent COVID-19 experience, many organizations now recognize that jobs can flex through the emergency remote working policies that had been implemented. Still, the question remains in many organizations as to what should flex for the long term. An examination of the work can assess whether long-term flexibility may pose risks to outcomes, such as productivity or innovation.

What flexibility is desirable?

The employer and employees must develop a shared understanding of the types of workplace flexibility that are desirable (employee preferences) and achievable (business imperatives and each role's demands). Leaning into only 1 model of flexibility — such as purely remote working — may alienate some current and prospective employees who are craving a return to the office space or may place added burdens on those with care responsibilities or ineffective workspaces at home. Likewise, other dimensions of flexibility, such as the ability to start later or work part time may be desirable and achievable for jobs based outside of the office. Employers must establish the employee's role of choice and the boundaries they will set. Choice is critical, as research by Stanford University has shown, that everyone works in different ways and has different work-life balance ideals.

What flexibility is sustainable?

Building a new model of flexibility that can last beyond the pandemic requires examining people, processes, and infrastructure. This workforce and workplace transformation asks employers and employees to get creative about providing more flexibility around work and how different jobs can flex. It requires a new "flex first" culture that will test mindsets and require a reset on traditional ways of working. Leadership skills need to evolve as teams navigate across multiple flexibility models, from in-person to remote to a blended approach. More digital enablement of people programs, like hiring and development, is critical to sustaining this transformation.

Part of evaluating what is sustainable is assessing risk

Risk, compliance, and governance are foundational enablers of an effective flexible work policy and are critical for establishing a future strategy. Consider how the following contribute to a strong basis for the overall strategy.

  • Regulatory compliance. Some employers have implemented a "work from anywhere" policy. Without proper planning, this can wreak havoc on tax and regulatory compliance. For instance, what are the implications if an employee moves to a state where the organization does not currently have an operation? Both the organization and the employee will need to ensure that payroll is set up accurately and address local and state tax requirements. The implications of noncompliance are wide ranging, and organizations should evaluate the risk to business reputation. Resources should be put in place to ensure governance along with compliance.
  • Health and safety. The foundation of foreseeable risk is that employers must prevent work-related injuries, whether employees are in the office or at home. Seventy-five percent of employees report that their employer has not conducted a health and safety risk assessment. Most countries have general health and safety laws to guide risk mitigation. By not complying with health and safety requirements, an employer could experience higher liability if an injured employee makes a claim. Complying with health and safety requirements is critical, as ergonomic discomfort is on the rise, as is the associated risk of exposure to an employer of liability claims. According to one opinion poll of people working from home, 41% said they have experienced new or increased pain in shoulders, backs, or wrists since starting to work from home. Managing ergonomics in a traditional office workplace is relatively easy, as it is known how people typically work — with a proper desk, reasonable space, and an ergonomic chair. At home, working conditions are not always optimized. Many workers have adapted to a broader variety of areas, habits, and awkward postures, such as working from their living room, on their couch or bed, or at a dining table. The same study reported that 43% of home workers said they took no action to make their home workspace more comfortable or efficient.
  • Security and privacy. No matter where employees are located, the work should be protected from cybersecurity and privacy threats at the same level as work performed in the office. Temporary remote working arrangements are fraught with security risks, such as poorly configured networking equipment, mixing of company and personal devices, and working environments that are not secure from others in the home. Relaxation of security protocols in the home can increase potential exposure of sensitive corporate or customer data and may lead to major security issues, such as a breach of privacy that may have a high impact on the business. The flexible work program's opportunity to create scalable transformation for the organization will be optimized when the answers to these questions about what is possible, desirable, and sustainable are understood before the policy is created. Only then can the organization embark on building a flexibility policy.

Looking for more information to get started on building a sustainable, flex work strategy? Email us or give us a call at 866.605.1031.