'The Great Reappraisal': How managers are adapting to the age of flexible work

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Since the Great Resignation began, employers and managers have been scrambling to lead, and retain, workers in an environment that has been anything but stable. Beyond the initial impacts of turnover, the shift to remote and hybrid work is making managers realize that when it comes to keeping their employees happy, offering flexibility goes a lot further than a pizza party in the breakroom.

In part one of our two-part series on The Great Onboarding, we took a look at what it means to be a worker, job seeker, or move jobs in a time of unprecedented changes in the work world. This time, we take a look at the employer side of things.

As much as the world has changed for workers, so too has it changed for people doing the hiring. Workers are moving jobs in search of greener pastures, renegotiating the terms of their employment, and generally calling the shots more than they have before, putting increased pressure on employers.

But with all the challenges come opportunities. Opportunities to attract and retain talented workers wherever they happen to live, opportunities to create more friendly workplaces, and opportunities to serve customers more effectively. In other words, the rebalancing going on in the workplace can benefit workers and employers alike.

It starts with flexibility at work. Specifically, that means managing the work, not the worker, according to Phyllis Moen, University of Minnesota sociology professor and co-author (with MIT professor Erin Kelly) of Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It. “Looking at deadlines and bottom lines is far better than trying to monitor where people are [and] what they’re doing every few minutes,” she says.

Benefits of flexible work

The benefits to employers of flex work and adapting the workplace to help employees stay happy and healthy — not to mention at their companies — are legion. For starters, it makes for more productive workplaces, according to Moen.

“Productivity is hard to measure,” Moen admits. Nevertheless, the on-the-ground (or, more accurately, in-the-cubicle) research that led to her book showed results indicative of greater productivity.

Key changes led to teams, individual workers, and managers feeling more productive. “They got rid of low-value work,” Moen says of the workplace experiments she helped run. Out went meetings without clear agendas and time-consuming documentation of work in progress that no one read. As a result, teams focused more on their goals and less on busywork.

Other benefits of workplace changes instigated by Moen, Kelly, and their team include:

  • Reduced stress, as evidenced by reduced levels of the stress hormone cortisol.
  • Better sleep — not so much more of it, but of better quality and longer duration.
  • More exercise, resulting in more energy for work and fewer health problems.
  • Happier workers, leading to reduced turnover and lower healthcare costs.

The changes lead to better quality work, more creative problem solving, i.e., increased innovation at the organization, and more productive workplaces.

In Overload, Moen and Kelly lay out some concrete steps backed up by their research for improving the workplace through increased flexibility.

Help employees make time for both personal and work obligations

Balancing work and time doing other things has become a priority for workers everywhere, and employers must adapt to attract and retain top talent, the Overload authors say.

Part of that may mean letting workers decline meetings that are not strictly necessary. Doing so saves valuable time for everyone, reduces stress, and gives employees a greater sense of ownership over their work schedules so they can better handle other obligations like caring for children.

Moen advises employers to think explicitly about how work impacts their employees’ personal lives and help them make adjustments to handle obligations at home. “Be supportive of people’s whole lives,” she says. “Supervisors, managers, employers just need to be supportive.”

Allow remote and hybrid work arrangements

It may seem obvious, but cutting down on commuting reduces physiological wear and tear, increasing productivity. At the same time, some people work better at the office, at least some of the time. Give them choices, Moen advises.

“Time doesn’t matter,” she says. “Place doesn’t matter.” Instead, she advises judging the quality and timeliness of work rather than where and when it got done.

Moen and Kelly also note that it’s vital to offer flexible working arrangements regardless of family situation or gender. Doing so avoids penalizing women — who have historically asked for more flex-time than men to help meet family obligations, often at the expense of promotions or pay raises.

Engage in dialogue with employees about what they need

Arriving at workplace adjustments collaboratively instead of through top-down edicts doesn’t just keep everyone on the same page. It also fosters the flexibility workers and employers need to adapt to constantly changing conditions in the world and the economy.

Aim to establish a dual-agenda workplace, Moen and Kelly suggest in their book. That’s where employees and managers in dialogue consider each other’s needs when creating schedules and defining work tasks.

As part of this process, Overload suggests deploying collaboration technology in ways that foster seamless communication without insisting on never-ending availability and instant responses to requests.

“None of this would have been possible without these innovative communication technologies that have made it possible for you to work anywhere, any time,” Moen says of the positive results of flexible work arrangements. That includes getting the maximum benefit of each worker’s talents. “Technology is augmentation,” she says. “That’s how we should look at it.” In other words, employers should see tech as a tool to help employees do their best work rather than as a means to control them.

Encourage time away from work

Helping employees unplug gives them valuable time during non-work hours to recharge so they can perform better on the job, say the authors of Overload. That may mean not sending requests after 6 pm or on weekends — or at least not expecting replies during off-hours.

The Overload authors even suggest going as far as to offer incentives for each day disconnected from work logins while on vacation. Ideas they offer for incentives include granting extra vacation time, paying small cash bonuses, and donating to an employee’s charity of choice.

Consider replacing some full-time positions with part-time work

An even more radical approach to flexible work replaces one or more full-time professional positions with part-time jobs. Such arrangements could benefit older workers, parents, people with health issues, and workers returning to school, Moen and Kelly say in their book.

The Overload authors advise employers to track part-timers’ hours to ensure they don’t end up as de facto full-timers on part-time pay, creating a one-sided situation that benefits employers more than employees. It’s just this sort of imbalance that contributes to talent leaving for greener pastures, the authors say.

Foster greater predictability for hourly workers

Moen and Kelly say more flexible work isn’t just for knowledge workers. Retail and other workers who need to show up physically can also benefit from workplace changes. For example, giving them more predictable scheduling and assigning just the number of shifts they need — no more and no less — can improve worker satisfaction and productivity, according to Overload.

Ways the authors suggest to get there include cross-training staff to make it easier for workers to fill in for each other without having to call people in at the last minute and improving operational efficiency to reduce peak-time chaos.

All can help reduce stress, improve problem-solving, and deliver the other benefits of more flexible work.

Looking to the future of work

“We’re not going back,” Moen says of the era of top-down management styles that require workers to conform to rigid work structures. “People want more control over their lives.” And they can get it, she points out. “That’s why you’re seeing this Great Resignation. I see it as the Great Reappraisal.”

The world of work has changed, no doubt. The era of the breakroom pizza parties may be good, but opportunities abound for employers as well as workers to take advantage of the new era.