Leadership   //   May 17, 2022

Myth buster: Flexible working’s biggest misconceptions 

Hybrid might be the word du jour among employers touting themselves as fostering flexible workplaces, but it’s being widely misunderstood — potentially with damaging consequences.

Granted, it’s a pithier buzzword than flexibility, but using it as a broad, catch-all to plan and execute post-pandemic workforce strategies is missing the point, workplace experts say.

The snag is that when hybrid-working is implemented poorly (as it currently is in many cases across industries) — flexibility as a whole gets a bad rap. We spoke to a range of consultants to gauge more insight into why there’s a need for more clarity.

Here’s a myth buster:

Myth: Flexibility means working from home 

The term hybrid was first coined as a way to describe how — after the last two years of enforced remote working — the majority of people don’t wish to return to the traditional 9-5, five-day week working structure we’ve used ever since it was first established by Henry Ford in 1926. Instead, they want a mix of in-office and work-from-home days as their workweek structure, aka a hybrid model. For most companies, a hybrid policy has therefore been shaped around the location of their employees. Whether they’re in the office one, two, three or four days a week, and work the rest from home, it’s entirely based on where they are physically located.

For businesses with thousands of staff to coordinate, across global offices, focusing first on the location of staff, is a sensible and understandable path to take. But it’s not what true flexibility is all about. 

“The problem is that pre-pandemic, people still thought of work as where we go, absolutely not what we do,” said Cali Yost, CEO of workplace consultancy Flex+Strategy Group.

To get to the nub of true flexibility, we need to reframe the question to accommodate this view of the word, according to Yost. In addition: only considering flexibility to apply to physical location can also be exclusionary.

“This is where hybrid leaves an entire universe of people out of the conversation,” she said, noting recent Pew research which showed that two-thirds of people don’t have jobs that can be done primarily remotely. “When you leave that universe out, you’re not creating what we call a flexible operating model. Flexibility is a way of operating your organization. It’s not a program, it’s not a policy. It’s truly how you plan and coordinate and execute the work day-to-day. And when you approach it from that perspective of ‘what do we need to do? And how and where do we do it best?’ It’s not a one-size-fits-all answer. It’s going to be different based upon a particular business, a particular job or even a person. But the approach is consistent.”

Myth: Flexible working is just for parents 

It’s kind of understandable why many associate flexible working with gender. After all, it really is beneficial for working moms and dads. But it’s more far-reaching than that. It can, for instance, also work well for people who can’t return to the office for medical reasons such as being immunocompromised, or even someone who wants to be a digital nomad. 

“Flexible working is about supporting people to work to their strengths and do their jobs to their full potential,” said Jenny Burns, CEO of innovation and design firm FluxxmN, which counts Mars Wrigley among its clients. ”So whether that be a working mom or dad, or somebody that has caring responsibilities, or somebody that just wants a portfolio of roles because that’s what stimulates them, then flexible working is about offering people flexibility, not just about where they work, but when they work and how they work.” 

That means measuring people on outcomes, rather than time, and eliminating presenteeism, she added.

There is also growing evidence to suggest it’s also a preference for some people of color who don’t want to return to the physical office where they have experienced related microaggressions. In a survey published last summer by the Slack think tank Future Forum, only 3% of Black workers surveyed said they wanted to return fully in person to the office, compared with 21% of white workers. Meanwhile, another study from the same company, showed Black workers reported a 50% increase in their sense of belonging and a 64% rise in their ability to manage stress once they began working from home. 

Much of that is down to the volume of microaggressions they would experience when in the office, said Janet Stovall, global head of diversity, equity, and inclusion at NeuroLeadership Institute, a global neuroscience-backed research-based consultancy which specializes in applying neuroscience to leadership.

“When you take people out of that space, you take them away from microaggressions, you take them away from the things that make diversity difficult,” she told WorkLife. “So, I can understand why companies want to push back against flexibility. But what they need to understand is when they’re pushing back against flexibility, they’re also pushing back against autonomy. And people have always needed autonomy in the workspace, but people now have gotten a taste of what it means to have a lot more of it.”

Myth: Flexible (and hybrid) working is about cost-cutting 

Much as many companies have embraced remote-first, remote-only or hybrid strategies in response to employer demand — not having to fork out the same sky-high office real estate costs as they did when at full capacity before the pandemic — is no doubt a sweetener. For some, it’s making the move to hybrid or remote models a no-brainer.

FluxxmN’s Burns believes many companies are prioritizing hybrid and flexible workforce strategies for the wrong reasons. Major organizations which regularly approach her consultancy for hybrid workforce strategy advice, expect to also save tons of cash closing buildings. “Instead they should be tackling it as an employee experience, design challenge and also the opportunity to do better for the planet and be more ethical. But no, they want to jump straight to, how can we close loads of buildings,” said Burns.

Far from cutting space and costs, businesses need to be investing in creating the right kind of spaces to meet the needs of this post-pandemic workforce — not cutting their spending, she stressed.

Indeed, flexibility in how we use office spaces will play an important part in people’s general state of mind, according to Dr. Audrey Tang, psychologist and advisor to London-based office design studio Kitt. The needs of an office will likely change on a weekly basis, as different teams figure out how, when and where they work best. “Flexibility is not just allowing people to work from home if they want to, but the way that your office is designed and the office is laid out,” she added. And that takes investment.

Myth: It’s an HR problem to solve

Streamlining the return to office for workforces not only jaded by the events of living through a global pandemic but more willing to resign jobs and switch careers than they have previously, is a talent and culture challenge. So naturally, HR and chief people officers have major roles to play in any organization’s restructuring of the working week. But they shouldn’t be the ones driving the changes needed to build flexible operational frameworks for businesses — that has to come from the operations side, Yost stressed.

Many senior leadership teams however think the onus is fully on HR. “Senior leadership needs to understand this is about reimagining the way your organization operates with HR there as a support for the parts that are theirs,” said Yost. HR’s wheelhouse: rethinking compensation strategies and how flexibility is baked into the hiring process, getting a strong performance management system in place, getting training programs in place so people feel they have what’s needed to guide their teams through these new ways of working, she said. But what isn’t their role: establishing the new guardrails on how people will execute their work, where and when.

“It’s a myth that HR is going to be in charge. They can support and enable from a talent perspective, but in terms of really fundamentally, reimagining how, when and where this organization is going to operate in a flexible, dynamic way that has to happen in the operation,” added Yost. “We’re conflating flexible work arrangements with flexible operating models. I don’t think senior leadership understands what this is.”