CEO & Co-founder, Said Differently.
Business is changing. Business is challenging. But the most consequential shift—and one that some organizations have yet to fully accept—is employees’ evolving expectations.
Today’s workers want flexibility and trust. They want respect, autonomy and opportunity. Many also want the ability to work remotely and in the way that best suits them. And I believe they have earned it, as many have made themselves available seemingly around the clock. From my perspective, while some companies might expect knowledge workers to be responsive beyond traditional office hours, few are balancing the expectation for near-constant responsiveness with increased flexibility. I am not surprised some employees have had enough. (Cue exhibit A: the great resignation.)
Frankly, many employees wanted flexible and remote work pre-2020. The pandemic forced reluctant companies to try it. Now, a number of those reluctant companies are reverting back to the office. But what about employees?
If success depends on hiring and retaining talented people, then every company, regardless of vertical or size, has no choice but to respect worker preferences. Eighty-seven percent of U.S. employees choose to work flexibly when they have the option, according to McKinsey. Flexible work is particularly meaningful to women, not only to make the work-life juggle simpler but also because women are less likely to experience microaggressions while working from home, another report by McKinsey said. Only one in 10 women want to work primarily in-office.
We have made some headway: 51% of U.S. knowledge workers will work hybrid by the end of 2023, and 20% will work fully remotely, a press release from Gartner said. But, to me, those numbers aren’t high enough. Despite knowing what we know about employee preferences and being forced to adopt remote work during the pandemic, some executives don’t want to go all in on flexible and remote work. They think remote work is for renegade leaders.
Well, I believe the renegades are making headway. Corporate longevity is declining. The average lifespace of an S&P 500 company will shrink to 15 to 20 years this decade. What does it take for a business to stay alive? I believe the answer is flexibility, speed and responsiveness—three factors that come down to talent.
Acknowledging Why It Hurts
From my perspective, why does a company care if a person leaves their desk in the afternoon to pick up their child from school if the person is producing quality work? I believe part of the answer is a force of habit and desire for control. In my experience, leaders and legacy organizations often cling to the status quo because that is what they know.
But when Millennials came on the scene, they helped drive the freelance moment, and Generation Z followed suit, asking further questions about their relationship with work. Gen Zers don’t believe in blind loyalty to an employer. To many, work is a transactional relationship. You get what you give.
Although many of today’s leaders might have been expected to put their heads down and do as they were told, the talent they are looking to hire will do no such thing. Businesses have no choice but to flip the script and consider what they can do for their people, rather than what their employees must do for them.
How To Begin Offering More Flexibility
Generational and technological changes have always forced new ways of working. We have been making incremental changes for the past two decades. Now, it is time for the companies clinging to old standards to take a giant leap forward.
To be clear, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to workforce structure. You need to design for the talent you are trying to attract. How can your company begin this transformation? Start off by listening. Ask people about their personal working style: where, how, when and with whom they do their best work.
Anonymous surveys are a start, but they are not enough. People might not trust that the survey is actually anonymous or that change will occur as a result. You need to sit down, one-on-one, with your talent. Let them know you are ready for honesty. Tell them you want to understand their experiences, wants and needs. Then, make the necessary changes to facilitate their best work.
My company took this approach from day one. Literally every decision we made was to meet the expectations of the modern worker. I realize that’s not the case for legacy corporations. These companies will need to restructure operations, evaluate office space investments, roll out technology platforms, rethink communication processes and reimagine culture. That is hard. It might feel like breaking something that is not all the way broken. But in my experience, these changes are inevitable, worth it and, honestly, awesome.
Another neat thing about remote work is it allows you to attract a diverse set of thinkers, which is especially key for companies charged with innovation or creative work. In the in-office, in-person model, I’ve found that dominant extroverted personalities tend to prevail through unconscious bias. In a hybrid or remote system, different archetypes can shine.
We often joke internally at my company that our team is the “merry band of misfit toys”: creative, unique, talented—different. To attract people like this, you need to respect their craft and preferences. You need to trust employees to organize their time. You need to create the right environment and constantly provide value because work is a value exchange. And you need to accept—or, better yet, relish—that talented folks don’t always fit the traditional mold of the in-office ladder climber.
When adopting flexible and remote work systems, you will likely realize that an employee’s success comes down to the outcomes they deliver, not the illusion of work that can happen in an office setting. You can begin stripping away unconscious bias and move toward creating a meritocracy. It won’t matter who had lunch with whom yesterday. What will matter is the quality of the work. I believe that is good for people. That’s good for customers and clients. And that is definitely good for business.
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