Where were you when the pandemic shut the world down? You may have been among the throngs of displaced workers lugging computer monitors and keyboards home, like a scene from a dystopian novel. Surely, we thought, we’ll be back at our desks in a week, maybe two, right? That plant I left behind won’t die. How naive we were.
Now, with variants of the virus emerging every few months, global vaccination rates inconsistent, employees setting the terms of their work, and employers offering new incentives amidst a labor shortage, the very nature of work has been turned on its head.
Our naiveté gone, our video conference lighting in place, and our WFH attire perfected, the question remains, for both workers and employers: how do we navigate these shifting sands, and what do we need to succeed for the long term?
The flexible work era
Simply put, it’s time for a change. Employees have had it with schedules that don’t allow for looking after children and other priorities and that too often unfairly penalize women for asking for flexible schedules.
The good news is that you have more leverage than ever now, and you and your employers have an opportunity to reshape the workplace for the future. Besides, flexible work is good for productivity and it’s good for recruitment and retention. According to a recent Gartner study, 59% of workers said they’d only consider a new job that allowed them to choose where they work.
“Technology is key to flexible work. But don’t let it take over your life. ‘Treat technology as your aid in setting boundaries rather than letting it seep into your non-work life.’”
But it’s going to take teamwork, says Kaumudi Misra, an assistant professor of management at California State University, East Bay, and a coauthor of a recent Harvard Business Review article on the subject. Organizations and employees are going to have to join forces if we’re going to make this work.
Here, then, are four of the skills you’ll need to cultivate to make your flexible work life work.
Misra says communication is key to making flexible work succeed. “Having a common flexibility language is helpful,” she says. “When I walk into an organization and ask anyone randomly, ‘What are the flex practices you have around here?’ Everyone should have a consistent answer. And I don’t think we are there yet.” She says it’s quite simple: “Unless we all understand it, we can’t do it.”
Talk it out, says executive coach Christina Boyd-Smith. She recommends what she and other coaches call a designed alliance.
The process asks you to clearly state what you hope to accomplish in a given interaction or project and clarify what you’d like to receive from the other party. That includes discussing in advance how to deal with anything that goes wrong. “I use it all the time,” Boyd-Smith says. “It’s a game changer.”
Minda Zetlin, a business technology columnist and author of "Telecommuting for Dummies", names emotional intelligence as vital to flexible work success.
“Possibly the most important skill sets are people skills and emotional intelligence skills,” she says. That’s because you have to flex those muscles when collaborating with people you don’t see every day. “Not being physically on-site puts you at a disadvantage in terms of forming bonding relationships with people at work,” she says. “You have to figure out ways to create that bonding without actually being there every day.”
That means getting creative about intentionally connecting, whether through occasional travel to meet colleagues face-to-face or using remote communication tools to bond over things besides work. “How you do that is different in every organization,” she says. “But maybe every conversation shouldn’t be 100% about work.”
Know thyself. Zetlin says self-awareness is essential for winning at flexible work.
“When you’re all by yourself, and there’s no one there making sure that you sit down at your desk at a particular time of day or get up at a particular time of the day, how do you organize yourself and your time to be productive?”
Finding the answer may include knowing what times of day you’re most productive. Are you a two-cups-of-coffee-before-you-talk-to-me kind of person? Maybe the morning is a good time to plan your day and follow up with email, then ease into more focused work. Then schedule as many of your less-demanding meetings as possible after lunch (with an afternoon latte, obviously!).
Of course, getting your needs met may require that you stand up for them. “Do not underestimate your power,” Boyd-Smith advises. “We underestimate our own power in situations all the time.”
That doesn’t mean being demanding or difficult. It usually means having a chat. As Boyd-Smith says, just throw it out there: "Hey, everyone, before we start the work, I’d like to have a conversation about how we’re going to work together.’”
And for those times you can’t be there to have that conversation, Zetlin recommends finding a sponsor.
Distinct from a mentor, which an employer typically fosters, sponsors are cultivated by individual employees. “A sponsor is someone who speaks up for you and considers your interest when you’re not there,” she says. “If you’re going to be working off-site and other people are working on-site, then it becomes really important.”
The future of work
Technology is key in flexible work arrangements. But Mira cautions to keep it in perspective. “From the employer’s perspective, providing what is convenient for the type of work being done is important,” she says. “It doesn’t necessarily have to be high tech or expensive.” And for employees, she advises not letting technology take over your life. “Treat technology as your aid in setting boundaries rather than letting it seep into your non-work life.”
Misra says all these factors will help create a new work culture that’s more human-centric and adaptable and gives everyone more of what they need for success. “The pandemic has shown us a way forward to achieve better flexibility at the workplace,” she says. “It should be provided to all, as long as productivity remains the same.”
Now, if only there was something we could do about those dying plants in our home offices.