The 5 Steps to Sustainable Flexible Working

We are now quite some time into the big WFH experiment and it’s one we already know succeeded. No one out there, not even the Elon’s and the Jamie’s of the world are trying to claim anything other than the truth - if remote work worked for you and your enterprise at any one point during the lockdowns then it works in general no matter when or why.

Most places will even be honest enough to admit that it worked better. That productivity is in fact higher. It’s a foolish metric to look at though because we now know that everyone worked themselves to the bone during the pandemic and many of us felt an enhanced sense of duty to both pull our weight at work and to ensure we do as much if not more during a difficult circumstance, in order to not add our lack of focus or worries or even the negative mental states we found ourselves in, affect our performance and as a result, we have inflicted serious levels of burnout on ourselves. 

Pandemic remote work, should of course be nothing like everyday-non-crisis remote work though. While the ask may have remained the same - that people perform their work from their homes- everything about the context has actually changed. When the element of force majeure is removed, what’s left has to be comfortable and valuable enough to be sustainable. 

Unfortunately, arriving at a place where the work shifts from unintentionally flexible and remote to intentionally flexible and remote will never happen in the absence of considered and sustained effort and the shops that haven’t invested in a transition to the new ways of work will live to regret it. This transition should have included everyone’s voice, it ought to have shunned command and control; succeeded to empower teams and individuals; and cast aside the traditional need for antiquated structures and processes in favour of a new dawn complete with open dialogue, no fear of failure, autonomy, personal responsibility, mutual respect and empathy and a willingness to build a new workplace reality away from the damaging misguided illusion of "professionalism equals no feelings" of old and into an age of cooperation and innovation. 

The enterprises best positioned for outcomes-based flexible work have had (or, at the very least have firm plans to have)

  • An honest company-wide exploration of mission/purpose/values/impact and an attempt at redefining cultural goals (note I did not say “Define a new culture” - as we now at long last all agree, that’s not possible, we can’t “design”, “transform”, “implement” or even really “change” culture - all we can do is accept it is the sum total of all our behaviours, have a goal of how we would like to conduct ourselves and work to change those intentionally through the human work);
  • A forensic discussion on what outcomes really are and what are the ways of work that enable them to reach them - i.e. a frank exploration of solo versus group work and what people need in terms of interactions, locations, tools, etc;
  • A sustained effort to call out the new type of leadership that is needed preferably augmented with a program to usher servant leadership out and to welcome servant leadership in its stead;
  • A foray into a better understanding of how to create non-limiting guard rails to allow teams to become truly autonomous and empowered in lieu of being bogged down by process and silos-caused limitations and a rollout of a host of measures, tools and new guidelines to support dialogue, measurement and open collaboration;
  • A deep change in the mentality of the top leadership who saw the writing on the wall and has genuinely embraced the opportunity to let their people move away from ill-understood and under-serving workplace convention into a new day of mandated and supported human work and flexibility.

Of the tens of enterprises we speak to every day at PeopleNotTech, the proportion that have completed all these steps above is low and that is despite the self-selection inbuilt into the mere fact of speaking to a company like ours that is created to provide a platform for the human work so one that is at the very heart of this significant change, so chances are that the overall proportion of those who have truly completed these 5 steps is extremely low.

What happens to the ones who haven’t? Very good question. One thing is certain and that is that the longer they take to complete these 5 steps to sustainable remote/flexible work (and make no mistake about it, everyone will have to), the more HumanDebt™ they are amassing and the more of their people they are setting up for being part of the next wave of the GreatResignation Reloaded that some are fearing will consume us over the next few years. That alone, ought to be scary and make companies rush to these five steps or even do some of the heroics we have seen others perform, where they went back to very basics and considered all their customs and behaviours to be open for discussion and where they have welcomed deep dives into their very reason d’être while redefining flexible and remote work, but as always, the speed of the frontrunners it doesn’t always frighten the laggards.

For those of you with the 5 steps in the bag, there’s stupendously good news - chances are you are some of the winners of the big pandemic WFH experiment and you have not only shown it works in general but make it work for you in a way that erased many of your enterprises’ previous sins and will usher in an era of more speed and agility than any PowerPoint could have mandated before times when it was not really about the people. Enjoy it and come back often to tell us your stories as they’ll pull the rest of us over the fence as well. 

Related: From Employee X to Ex-Employee Via Disengagement