The COVID-19 pandemic forced many businesses to adopt remote and hybrid work policies causing employees and employers alike to take a step back and examine the role that work plays in our lives. That role has certainly shifted over the past two and a half years, and expectations about when, where and how we work have changed.
Today, nearly 60% of workers say they can work from home at least one day a week, and, according to Slack’s Future Forum, 80% of knowledge workers want flexibility in where they work, and 94% want flexibility in when they work. It’s clear that it will be nearly impossible for employees and employers to go back to the way things were when workers were expected to be physically in the office for set hours, five days a week.
And flexibility isn’t just a perk for employees. It’s also good for business. Implementing flexible work policies provides tangible gains for employers in employee productivity. Flexibility gives employees better opportunities to focus, leading to better work.
As conversations about a return to the office continue around the world, it’s crucial for employers to assess and modernize their remote work policies to ensure that they align with their desired employee experience strategies.
Establishing flexibility with guardrails
Every business leader understands that when implementing a new policy or initiative, especially something as complicated as flexible work, it’s all about trial and error. One of the first lessons we learned at Slack when establishing our flexible work policies is that flexibility requires guardrails. Making the most out of the opportunities presented by the shift in expectations in when, where and how we work doesn’t mean blanket flexible work policies across the organization for all teams and employees.
Instead, we learned the best approach is to offer flexibility with guardrails. When establishing those guardrails, we needed to factor in a variety of considerations because there is no one-size-fits-all approach to flexible work policies.
One simple way to offer flexibility with guardrails is to consider core hours for collaboration during which employees can work together at the same time. During these core hours, you know you can ping your colleague or schedule meetings to move a project forward. These hours should be established taking the time zones of individual teams and employees into account. Flexible work policies can then be developed around established core hours.
Another guardrail for flexibility is increased transparency among teams. Teams can set an expectation that each member consistently updates work status — whether they’re in “do not disturb” mode, focusing or available to collaborate, opening the door for better communication and understanding across an organization.
Gauging when, where and how your teams work best
Employers also should assess how employees’ time can be best used. Identify how your teams need to work together and what they ultimately need to accomplish. Meetings aren’t required for meaningful collaboration and discussion — they’re often scheduled and kept out of habit rather than intention. So is a team’s time best used by collaborative, synchronous brainstorming meetings? Or is it better to have teams set aside time for individual “brainwriting“ to prepare their ideas and share and discuss asynchronously or to then come together for more efficient meetings?
then come together for faster, more efficient meetings?
At Slack, we have Maker Weeks twice each quarter when our teams cancel all internal recurring meetings, giving us all the opportunity for more focus time and deeper rest. We also have Focus Fridays, when teams cancel all internal meetings, and we’re all encouraged to turn off our notifications so we can work without interruptions. Of course, there will always be the need to hold external meetings during Maker Weeks and Focus Fridays. But we’ve found that providing this internal time for focus and deep work is beneficial to the vast majority of Slack employees.
By defining when and how teams are expected to be available simultaneously allows employers to build a foundation of trust with their employees while giving them the space needed to thrive. That foundation of trust is critical and was a crucial lesson we learned in creating our flexible work policies.
Flexible work as an employee experience strategy
The shifting nature of work today has permanently altered the workforce’s expectations for employee experience. According to a summer 2022 Future Forum Pulse survey, inflexible return-to-office plans led to dramatically decreased employee experience scores for knowledge workers. Going back to the office full-time led to knowledge workers reporting a steep decline in work-life balance, satisfaction with their work environment, and worsening stress and anxiety when compared with remote workers.
Flexible work policies allow employees to focus on and prioritize their mental and physical health, which in turn allows them to show up as their best selves at work and deliver for the business. For example, when employees have more leeway in where they work, employers can encourage employees to set up their workstations in places more conducive to their happiness and productivity – whether that’s in their favorite room at home, a cafe or even outdoors. Flexible work policies also give employees the space to be more active, with time to walk the dog or go on a run during lunch.
It’s clear that flexible work policies improve employee experience scores. But it also has led to some surprising findings for us. Flexibility impacts just about everything across a workforce. We see higher productivity scores, improved work-life balance and increased opportunities for working mothers and people of color. And these increased opportunities are a direct result of flexible work policies that allow employees to work outside of the traditional nine-to-five and from outside of commuting distance from an organization’s physical headquarters.
Making flexible work work
As flexible work policies at Slack have evolved, we have spent time listening to our employees and developing features that can enhance their working experience. For instance, many employees work within teams that have different core hours or teammates in different time zones. We noticed employees were sending messages when the recipients weren’t working. This led to the development of Slack’s scheduled send feature, which allows people to send messages at any time while being mindful of the recipient’s schedule.
Along those same lines, we learned that not every meeting needed to be a meeting, and that not every meeting could be replaced by a message. There were these in-between instances in which we needed to share more context than was possible with text and images in a message. So we developed clips, which enables employees to record videos of themselves and their screens with important updates and developments and share them asynchronously.
Beyond tools and technology, it’s critical for leaders to lead by example for flexible work policies to stick. Promoting work-life balance is one thing, but if managers and leaders send messages at 9 p.m., it can set an expectation – intended or not – that employees should be working late hours as well. And this holds for remote work policies as well. If leaders begin to show up at the office five days each week, it sets an expectation that employees need to come into the office as well.
Finally, in a flexible work environment, it can be challenging for colleagues to engage, learn about, and bond with each other. It’s important to provide opportunities for employees to bond. During regular meetings, teams can set aside some time at the start to chat or share icebreaker questions and recreate the conversations that would typically happen around the office. Teams can also hold regular social meetings that involve a game or activity designed for the team to get to know each other and build camaraderie.
Finding the right balance between managing hybrid work and flexibility can be hard. Often the lines between home and work life can be blurred, and the always-on nature of the apps and tools employees use to do their jobs can be difficult to switch off, leading to burnout. But with intentional flexible work policies and through leading by example, employers can build a more modern workplace – one that offers desirable, healthy and effective employee experiences for their teams.
Christina Janzer is senior vice president of research and analytics at Slack Technologies LLC. She wrote this article for SiliconANGLE.