Marilyn Zakhour is the founder and chief executive officer of UAE-based Cosmic Centaurs, a flexible work consultancy
As higher vaccination rates and warmer months inch their way closer, the world has once again started to hope that we may someday soon get our lives back. While people make their summer plans, so too are they thinking of what the return to work will look like this coming September. The question of what will remain of our newly adopted ways of working and learning beckons itself.
Will we return to endless Zoom calls, or will we finally be able to grab a coffee with colleagues on a whim? Will we continue wearing masks at the office? Will we ever again shake hands to seal the deal on a new contract?
As reports of Zoom fatigue, burnout, and loneliness increase, many question whether these new work models are less salutary than we thought, but the numbers speak for themselves. Worldwide, 72 per cent of employees do not want to return to the office five days a week. An Upwork survey also showed that 62 per cent of managers will increase the share of remote workforce.
There is no going back to the way things were. Instead, the pandemic has given us permission to reinvent our work models, and many of us are optimistic that this shift can lead to a happier, healthier, more impactful workplace.
What happens now?
While remote work, asynchronous learning, or digitisation are not recent, we have just witnessed a once in a lifetime event - a collective mass experiment where the unspoken rules of how we work were completely brushed aside.
The UAE is a great example of this. Prior to Covid-19, the UAE had one of the lowest remote work participation rates in the world at just 10 per cent of workers. A recent Michael Page survey shows this number now stands at 61 per cent.
Prior to this, we had been working in very much the same ways for centuries. Offices as we know them date back to the 16th century. The internet did not catalyse sufficiently drastic changes to our workspaces, or the way we communicate and organise work. Covid-19 on the other hand, might have done just that. It’s time to re-invent the way we design work, and perhaps this time around we can make work feel a little less like work.
Is compassion the answer?
The executives that seek out our help often focus on the following question: “What should my remote work policy look like when the return to the office is possible?“ Our answer is to rewrite their question. We warn them against sticking a bandaid on a gushing wound. Discontent with work life balance, work stress, and burnouts were rampant way before the pandemic started.
The question we therefore propone is: “How can our newfound flexibility help us develop a humane and happy workplace that takes individual preferences into account while improving the top and bottom lines of businesses?”
Richard Branson famously said: “Take care of your employees and they will take care of your business.” This should now be high on leaders’ agendas. Having spent the past few decades obsessing over customers, it is time to obsess over employees.
Last year, as work life and personal life boundaries blurred, leaders became more aware of their team members’ individual needs and concerns. This year you learned that one of your employees has an aging mother who requires constant care. Another has an eight year old that has trouble getting homework done on their own. A third has a passion for dancing and dedicates every available hour to practice. Imagine waking up one day and mandating that they all have to return to the office eight hours a day, preventing them from caring for a loved one or pursuing a personal passion.
With hope on the horizon, rescinding our compassion seems almost cruel, and let’s not forget that talent has agency. Recently the editor in chief of the Washingtonian mandated that her staff return to the office. The staff’s response? They revolted and refused to publish any work until they felt heard.
How do you create a workplace where everyone feels heard?
While remote work is one form of flexible work, we believe that focusing on work location as the only form of flexibility is having a narrow view of a concept which has the ability to revolutionise worklife.
True flexibility is not about shifting from a five-day work week to a four-day work week, or allowing all staff to work from home two days a week. Flexibility cannot be created by enforcing a new rigid rule. By nature of the word, flexibility is flexible, allowing a spectrum of options that individuals can choose from.
Flexibility in the workplace cuts across many different spectrums: the where (spectrum of location), the when (spectrum of time) but also the how (spectrum of contracts). Here is how to think about these spectrums:
The spectrum of “location”
The decision is not about where people should work from. Rather one should think about whether staff need to be together in order to create value, or whether they can accomplish their work solo. There are also considerations around data and personnel security, access to machinery, or even immersion into company culture for newcomers. Where people work from becomes a subset of those decisions.
Creative teams that deliver collaborative work products will benefit from co-location, whereas a customer support agent can do the job from anywhere.
Companies can then make multiple locations available: headquarters, satellite offices, coworking spaces, from home office setups or even a stipend to work from a local cafe.
Where: The spectrum of “time”
Each individual has daily or weekly personal schedules and preferences that result in optimal working hours. Today, many employees can work asynchronously, creating value for an organisation at any time of the day.
Night owls can work during their most productive hours. Parents can clock off early to help a child complete their homework and put them to bed before reconnecting. People who had exited the workforce can readjust to full time work through phased re-entry programmes.
Companies worldwide have devised diverse work-time policies, from flextime, to compressed work weeks or days, to phased retirements. You too can design work-time options with your end user in mind.
How: The spectrum of “contracts”
Offering real flexibility also requires us to rethink how we approach employment contracts. In 2014, the UK government extended the right to flexible working to all employees with more than 26 weeks on the job. Employers are required to study the request and must justify any refusal. Moreover, the UK offers flextime, annualised, staggered hours, compressed work week contracts and even job-sharing arrangements.
The spectrum of contracts also extends to the implicit psychological contracts between employers and employees. These are defined as the shared beliefs about the exchange that the work relationship pertains to. Organisations should acknowledge the need for new psychological contracts designed to fit employees’ individualised needs, reducing the risk of setting unfounded expectations and acknowledging the unique value and role each individual plays in the organisation.
Can this really be done?
Cynics may say that this level of flexibility cannot be achieved at scale, however, the data shows that it is not only possible but mutually beneficial to both employers and employees.
On a recent episode of our weekly Linkedin Live, Centaur Stage, Damian Brown, group head of talent acquisition at regional luxury goods retail giant Chalhoub Group shared how they introduced individualised flexible work models. From allowing team members to co-locate as needed, to hiring in countries they never previously considered, to allowing teams to work from anywhere for a month per year. Chalhoub’s approach to integrating real flexibility is a true example of compassion at work.
Individualised flexibility, also allows for true diversity, enabling different people to create value in different ways. Companies with more diverse management teams have 19 per cent higher revenue due to innovation. Diverse and inclusive companies also see improved levels of employee engagement and performance.
We have an opportunity to reimagine the way we do things to be more diverse, inclusive, and humane. Rather than use data that justifies why ‘work from home’ is not the way forward, let’s use it as a chance to explore the possibilities that flexible work enables. It is a once-in-a-few centuries chance to reinvent how we work and the purpose of the office as we know it.