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The Future of Flexible Work

Several years ago, Sophie Wade found herself confronting a problem that’s become central to modern life: Her 3-year-old and 10-year-old were complaining that they never saw her. Struggling to find that always tenuous balance between work and family, she decided that maybe she should listen to her son, and try to find a “half job.” Wade, who had spent her career in strategy and finance-related business development roles, started looking around for a situation that would only require three days a week—with minimal weekend invasions—and landed a job as a principal at a boutique executive search firm. And then she started to think about all the other workers who shared her former plight—and all the parents who felt compelled to step out of the workforce entirely because they couldn’t make the balance work. And so she decided to do something about it, and set up a company called Flexcel Network, which started out matchmaking companies and workers wanting flexible jobs, and now helps companies and individuals make successful transitions to the new work environment, including flexible models. As she explains, “The alternative was to face an uphill battle of trying to persuade someone to create a flexible job for me…this was 2011, when flex was not a familiar topic and there wasn’t nearly the same amount of data proving how beneficial it is for all parties.” Below, she rolls out the benefits, hurdles, and opportunities. Meanwhile, Sophie is joining us next Tuesday, August 11 at 1pm EST for a Twitter chat about flexible work. Tweet your questions @goop along with the hashtag #goopchat or follow along by searching #goopchat and clicking All Tweets.

Q

What does a perfect job look like for most of the people you encounter?

A

It’s different for everyone. The only consistent theme is that 9-5, five-days-a-week (or a similar alternative) at one fixed location works well for only a handful of people. Different people would like or need varying options or models depending on (a) their optimal working style (are they an independent worker, or do they need other people as stimuli), and (b) what flexible work model or framework would best fit the needs of their families, activities, and obligations. In fact, the first significant challenge for everyone is to work out what the “perfect job” might look like. Until very recently, there were no choices and if one actually enjoyed one’s work, it was assumed to be unpaid.

Without the means or catalyst to question the habit, the majority of people are ill-equipped to work out what that “perfect job” might look like for them. It requires some real thought and discussion for an individual to identify what hours to work, on which days, and accomplished at what location(s). Plus, it’s important to consider what their work-related deal-breakers are, versus desired flex elements, as well as how much they need versus want to work.

Q

Is this more true of women, or do you find that it is genderless?

A

Women typically face tough struggles if they are the primary care givers for their children and or other relative(s) and work full-time. In my experience, they typically don’t look for the “perfect job,” they simply try and find one that limits the conflict and stress to bearable levels. At the same time, a study from the Families and Work Institute showed that men actually express more work/life conflict than women—60% versus 47% in dual-earner couples. Men have been constrained by stereotypes as to what is expected of them—their desire for different options has been noticeable as flexible working options have become more accepted.

Anne-Marie Slaughter was very surprised by the number of Millennial men who wrote to her after her “Women Still Can’t Have It All” article in The Atlantic in 2012, complaining they are viewed as weak and harassed if they prioritize family over their corporate work. Flexible work models are appropriate for everyone. Studies now show that if our individual working strengths are recognized—e.g. one person can be most productive at night, another does their best work in the morning—then productivity also increases significantly. The individuals are happier, which means they are more engaged, productive, healthier, and less stressed—loyalty, and therefore retention, increases.

Q

What’s the foundation of inflexible, 40-hour work weeks? Where did it come from, and why was it adopted as the standard?

A

The origins of the 40-hour work week are from the Industrial Revolution in the UK. A Welsh social reformer, Robert Owen, originally came up with the seemingly logical and “balanced,” but totally arbitrary, 40-hour week with a slogan he coined in 1817: “Eight hours of labor, eight hours of recreation, and eight hours of rest.” The idea was to create a standard and reduce the prevailing accepted practices of grueling 10 to 16 hours days, six days a week, which men and women were working in the factories and elsewhere side by side. At this time, children were also working 8 to 12 hours a day, six days a week, depending on whether they were 9-13 or 14-18. The eight-hour day was adopted as law in the UK in 1884 and other countries, like Mexico in 1917 and Spain in 1919, but it took longer in the U.S. Labor organizers in several U.S. states were campaigning in the 1870’s with a network of Eight-Hour Leagues and achieved success in certain places or industries, like for miners and railroad workers. However, it was not fully instituted nationwide until 1937 as the Fair Labor Standards Act, which was part of the New Deal.

Q

Why has a desire for a more flexible work week only been expressed recently?

A

The current Labor Laws were established in the 1950’s, a unique period of economic boom after World War II, when households could be sufficiently supported by one income and, as a result, only 34% of women worked outside the home. This was an anomaly for women who had been working alongside men for decades, in the factories and, before that, for centuries in the fields. Since then—from economic need as well as choice—women have been increasing their presence in the corporate workforce. By 1999, the labor force participation rate for women had risen to 60%. (It has since actually declined to 56%, which is mostly explained by a lack of workplace flexibility.)

However, because the labor laws in the United States are geared toward this unique economic period in the past, with the expectation that someone would be working in the home, they do not accommodate typical daily circumstances for the majority of workers now. For example, these laws don’t mandate paid time off to have and nurture a baby; they don’t mandate affordable day care; they don’t allow much give in the system to allow for differences in family situation; they don’t support the caregiving of ailing relatives; they don’t try to mitigate challenging long commutes to work or weather-related school closures. And there’s so much more.

Very importantly, in parallel, technology has been a critical enabler of different ways of working. Key developments started with the prevalence of laptops versus desktop computers which became connected by broadband. Then came smartphones in 65% of American hands connected by widely-available WiFi and powered by collaborative software. This all presents very different options for the majority of workers. People are now able to interact with others to do complex tasks from multiple remote and office-based locations. The capacity to work in a less fixed and structured way has allowed workers to challenge the status quo, indicating that the fixed formula is no longer necessary or beneficial.

Q

Is a flexible job right for everyone? What about those who argue that people will just take advantage?

A

Every person has their own optimal working style and life situation. As a result, if employers are interested in getting the most out of all members of their workforce, they need to recognize this and give everyone some type of flexibility in their job. The opportunity is to permit appropriate concessions—such as a change in the timing of work hours or a change in work location—to allow each person to adapt and optimize for their specific work profile and circumstances. This customization enhances employees’ productivity by enabling them to work in a way that better fits their other obligations and responsibilities. Their stress levels are then reduced, which also improves their happiness and health. It is a true win-win situation. In addition, the respect shown to each person as a unique individual encourages a positive and reciprocal reaction from the employee toward the employer, since interests and intentions are more aligned. With a new relationship dynamic based on respect, trust can develop, significantly improving all interactions.

There will always be certain people who take unfair advantage of situations. This cannot be avoided with flexible work models either, though the impact can be mitigated. There are office-based flex options which simply involve a change in work start and end times which can be ideal for those employees who might be less inclined to work in the expected/desired way when not in the office. Remote working or telecommuting, where the employee works from home or another location not at the main office, is the main flex option cited for potential abuse as the person is typically not visually monitored during the working day. However, appropriate task assignment and monitoring, coupled with suitable performance metrics and review, can ensure the tracking of teleworking employees’ ongoing task accomplishment. It is important to match the flex working option that suits both the employee’s situation and their optimal working style.

Q

Should you overtly ask for a more flexible situation, or just find a way to make your job more flexible?

A

There are many ways to achieve a more flexible situation, and it is very specific to a person’s situation, job, manager, and company. The optimal method for achieving it depends very much on the kind of flexibility that is desired; the company’s current flex-related policies; and what flex options are generally accepted by the company and the specific boss/manager.

These aspects determine the subtleties of what is likely achievable, how to position the request, and how to try and get the modification long-term. In many companies, informal flexible arrangements are typical. It allows the company not to set precedents company-wide and, if they see a flex option as a privilege, they can more easily take it away. This is not the best long-term solution, but it can be a meaningful step in improving work/life fit and an interim measure until flex becomes more accepted everywhere and formal, long-term flex policies become institutionalized.

So, if your company is still generally resistant to flex arrangements, but your boss seems open-minded, proposing an informal, 3-month trial can be a good concept to test. Appropriate performance metrics are important to put forward as well, with adaptations as necessary for the specific flex set-up. Then, your continued consistent achievement of tasks can prove the new flex arrangement is not impacting your work or the company. It is critical to understand that the onus is on you to make your proposal for flexibility one that will not negatively impact the business.

Q

How can companies evolve and adapt to meet demands of the new workforce? And how imperative is it that they do?

A

The two major drivers of the new way of working, typically referred to as “The Future of Work,” are technology advances and the Millennials. Technology has changed the game in that people are now are able to work from almost anywhere and at any time. A large portion of employees no longer have to be tethered to the office to be able to fulfill their tasks. At the same time, Millennials, otherwise known as Generation Y, are demanding very different work environments and work models. They are a larger generational group than the Boomers (estimated at 75-80 million people and generally including everyone born between 1980 to 2000) and are expected to make up 50% of the workforce in 2020 and 75% by 2025.

Since Millennials will make up an increasingly large percentage of every employer’s workforce, it is essential that attention is paid to understanding the very different emerging work environment they are looking for. Their demands likely stem, in part, from the fact that they had far fewer good job opportunities when leaving college and had to survive on project work. In addition, they have looked to Boomer and Generation Xers for viable work/life models without much success.

Companies first need to address a couple of their core demands, as they are beneficial for all employees. These are to have: (a) “purpose-driven culture,” where the executive team needs to (possibly develop first and then) articulate clearly their corporate values and why someone should want to work there, and (b) flexible working models, which recognize and address the different needs and life situations of all workers, particularly with respect to timing and location. This can be done formally or informally. It can be trialed for a small group or department and then rolled out division by division until it’s company-wide. Managers are critical to engage in the process so that a unit’s needs can be understood and coordinated with reciprocal benefits.

Future of Work-related changes are also increasing the number of part-time workers and freelancers, which companies can benefit from, using different working models to leverage senior expertise when desired, explore new markets, cope with seasonal fluctuations, and more. Again, there are significant benefits for both sides.

Q

Do you have any advice for new moms who want to step out for a while to be with their baby? Any way to anticipatorily ease/plan for a transition back? Or, once you’re out, are you out?

A

The Future of Work environment is characterized by a general move away from traditional long-term, single company career trajectories, with many fewer full-time jobs overall. The emphasis is already shifting to diversified, portfolio careers, often made up of a combination of part-time and freelance work. As a result, project work is becoming much more prevalent and accepted for almost every type of career.

My personal recommendation to women who are either preparing to start or are at the beginning of raising a family is to find some way to stay at least nominally involved in the corporate workforce. Some corporate involvement can be maintained by doing occasional small projects or getting a limited part-time job within a reasonable time-frame after giving birth. This can help mitigate the devastating detrimental impact to confidence that is so pervasive amongst those who take a hiatus of more than a year from the office environment. Lack of confidence prevents so many highly-qualified professionals from so-called “on-ramping” again without a struggle, as they feel left behind as well as isolated from a world they were previously very familiar with, and even may have been high-fliers in.

Once someone has been out of the workforce for a few years, transitioning back in is achieved by a mixture of energy and determination…and often quite a bit of persistence and patience. Taking on project work is generally found to be the easiest way to get started. For the professional, it helps them get their feet wet in a manageable way—both logistically, and by mentally getting them back into the corporate mindset. For a prospective employer, this can be seen as a low-risk trial, and an opportunity to test someone’s experience and expertise before signing them on for a longer-term role. Such projects may be paid or even unpaid, depending on the situation. If the returning professional is looking to apply their skills in a different area, then proposing a limited “executive internship” with measurable goals can be one way of initially proving one’s worth in a new field. However, there must be clear understanding of the metrics that will prove employee value and trigger conversion to a paid model.

Q

Do you believe that employers will have to get on-board?

A

Flexibility would not be gaining as much momentum as it has over the last three years if countless studies and the numerous results of successful implementation were not proving over and over again the plethora of benefits accruing to employers. Indeed, as of June last year, the “right to request flexibility” became mandatory in the UK for all employees who have worked more than 26 weeks at a company. This right was originally introduced in 2003, but only to parents with children under 6-years-old. Then, with widespread, successful results, the law was expanded incrementally over subsequent years to include parents with older children, then also caregivers and, finally, everyone.

The carefully thought through process of requesting flexibility has been one critical reason for the successful roll-out of this law, in that the responsibility is clearly given to employees to develop a viable proposal for their flexible request. Employees have to communicate how their desired new set-up will not adversely impact the completion of their individual tasks or the business in general. Then, the employer derives benefit when their employees, working under conditions that they have had more control in determining, are more relaxed, happier, more engaged, and more productive.

The financial rewards are generally significant (depending on how many of the many flex models are implemented)—including higher productivity, lower turnover, lower real estate costs, and lower health costs. However, establishing flexibility formally can take quite a substantial amount of investment—in time, money, and effort by the employer. To roll-out workplace flexibility successfully, managers need to be on board and recognize the benefits to the organization. In addition, with unaligned work hours and remote working locations for individual workers, new means of synchronizing collaborative meetings and increased communication are necessary to sort out, which can be a substantial task to undertake. Workers also need to understand both the flex models, as well as which individual option would best suit them personally. Training is certainly recommended to help them make and implement the right choices. Luckily, the rewards have been proven over and again that it is worth it, for all parties.

Q

What are other things that employers need to do to create happy and engaged employees?

A

It is an amazing development that “happiness” is actually a corporate objective for some companies these days. We have come a very long way! There are numerous additional ways to engage employees so they can enjoy their work and accomplish their tasks as best as possible. Many of these cost no or little money and can be selected depending on those elements that make a difference to the specific employees of a particular company. These encompass such elements as:

  • Confirming and articulating the company’s culture, values and goals so employees can be aligned with what they are working for and why;
  • Changing the physical working environment to be more relaxed and conducive to interaction and collaboration;
  • Recognizing and celebrating many types of employee contributions and accomplishments;
  • Enabling transparency throughout the organization to create an inclusive environment;
  • Instituting volunteer days for employee-recommended charities;
  • Introducing company-sponsored well-being benefits such as meditation and yoga;
  • Offering unlimited vacation (easiest where jobs are more outcome-based so performance can be monitored in an ongoing way by employer and employee).

Q

What can we do to ensure that “flexibility” doesn’t mean boundary-less work days?

A

Part of the technological impact of the Future of Work derives from the advent of smartphones, powerful, low cost laptops, and widespread broadband WiFi. Together with powerful communication and collaboration software, people can work from anywhere, at any time, including being able to continue to receive and answer emails at all times of the day and night. At the same time, social media activity often takes place during work time. Previously, the physical boundaries of offices meant it was easy to delineate when work started and ended. This is clearly no longer the case.

Instead, individually-relevant work hours need to be delineated thoughtfully, respected by company executives and management, and followed by employees. It is all too easy to send out emails during the evening or over the weekend, when a response is neither urgent nor necessary. This creates pressure, perceived by the recipient, of the need to respond, and then unhealthy habits form and are hard to break. Bottom line: Employees need sufficient leisure time on a daily basis in order to be able to be productive, and they need to take all their annual vacation time. This is a major issue in the U.S., with 429 MILLION vacation days going unused each year.

It is critical that the policy and the example is set at the top of the company in order for the message and practice to be consistent. This allows employees at all levels of the company to act in corresponding fashion. At the same time, entrepreneurs and freelancers also need to create personal and professional boundaries proactively. Self-determination and self-discipline are key characteristics of successful workers in the Future of Work environment.

Sophie Wade is the Founder and Future of Work Strategist of Flexcel Network, which provides strategic consulting services to corporations to help them make the necessary significant transition to the imminent “Future of Work” environment. Flexcel Network also helps employees and independent workers adapt and start proactively managing their new latticed and or diversified careers.

Sophie has lived and worked in Asia, Europe, and the U.S., assisting entrepreneurs and major corporations with identifying, developing, and executing strategic initiatives, building teams and ventures and creating partnerships. She writes and speaks regularly about the Future of Work, career transitioning, and portfolio careers, as well as flexible working. Sophie has a BA from Oxford University in Chinese and an MBA from INSEAD.

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