Flexible Working: Beyond Binary Thinking

The work is where the heart is

If your organisation is only talking about working at home or working in the office, then you are missing the potential productivity and other benefits of flexible working. However, to realise these benefits you will need to move beyond binary thinking and lean into the tension and choices for employees, teams and the organisation.

Flexible working is about…flexibility. The choice for organisations is not a binary one between working at home and working in an office. There are multiple dimensions of work arrangements and patterns that can be leveraged to meet the needs of the work involved, the people and the strategy of the organisation. Escaping the binary of in the office versus at home is essential to an effective strategy.

Before You Begin

Before you even consider the choices for flexible working, there are a few foundations that you and the team need to understand in your organisation. These elements are what shape your approach to flexible working:

  • What is the purpose of the organisation?
  • What culture do you wish to practice?
  • What are your performance management & career development models?
  • What kinds of work does each team and role do to fulfil the organisational strategy?
  • What constraints do you have from a time, security, technical or legal perspective?

You may look at the list and see a lot of work to do to be ready for flexible working. However, this work isn’t preamble. These questions shape what you want work to achieve and how you expect it to happen. The outcome of these questions is a major part of your chosen employee value proposition. If your flexible working strategy does not align to that will fail. A flexibile working strategy fulfils your work and your strategy. It cannot be independently determined.

Any attempt to impose a working model that doesn’t reflect these factors will fail or cause ongoing major issues for employees and the organisation. The better you understand the questions above, the better you can work with leaders and teams to change their work.

A Menu, Not a Compliance Process

Flexible working is flexible. You are designing a menu of choices for individuals and teams. The teams are going to use the menu to fit their work to their needs, the organisations needs, and the outcomes that they need to achieve. If you are designing a watertight step-by-step compliance process, stop you are going the wrong way. Employee and team choices are fundamental.

Choice means tensions. There won’t be a one size fits all. You also won’t make 100% of people happy 100% of the time. Because the flexibility options need to meet so many conditions and also suit both the needs of individuals and teams there will be some need for compromise. Teams and individuals will have to discuss and agree how they balance the work and personal tensions using the choices from the menu.

Your sales director may want to work from the hiking paths of Nepal, but if a major part of that work is engaging clients in Australia, wifi is spotty in Nepalese mountains, and the role involves working with other teams in the organisation, that ambition will likely have to be compromised. Otherwise your sales director needs to find a role that better fits their lifestyle. However, working from home or a regional location for work, client or family reasons might be a better option for all involved.

The Minimum Menu Options

Some work is timebound and must happen at particular times. Let’s call this synchronous work. Other work is able to be done at any time. Let’s call this asynchronous work. Organisations need also to realise that their work is both internal and with external partners. Your flexible working menu should include options to cover the following patterns of work at anywhere and in the office:

  • Synchronous, External Partner Work
  • Asynchronous, External Partner Work
  • Synchronous, Internal Work
  • Asynchronous, Internal Work

All four modes above can be delivered anywhere. There is no location built into those options by design. Much of the asynchronous work can be done anywhere by definition. However, the menu and the choice of your teams will shape where those patterns of work occur.

There are another two dimensions that need to be factored into this menu to cater to the needs of focused individual effort and collaborative creation and problem solving:

  • Individual work
  • Collaborative work

Mixing these together gives us a menu like this:

It is important to recognise that location is only a small part of the menu choices. We obsess over our offices, office design and meeting spaces but they aren’t all of our work choices. Much more important is the infrastructure and tools to support the breadth of work arrangements required. After all only 3 of the 8 triangles might require physical co-location. Even in these 3 we have seen through our recent experiences of lockdown work can go on without physical location.

Requiring physical location is an unnecessary strict standard and one that it is very hard to meet. The hard part about flexibile working is that there are no binding rules, just choices and tensions. Employees, teams and the organisation may choose physical location when not strictly required for social, cultural or other reasons. There is a lot of informal interaction and context sharing in a workplace that is critical for relationship building, alignment and productivity but hard to capture when separated. I’ve long been an advocate for the kinds of tools that we have used in recent months to work remotely. They have for too long been underleveraged by organisations to their detriment. However, every utopia has its underlying dystopia. I also understand that being forced to work remotely is suboptimal for much work and for many many people. The social stresses of recent times highlight that clearly.

Every organisation needs to remember that the entire menu of choices contribute to culture and engagement. Engaging individuals and teams across the organisation in developing a menu and thinking in a detailed way about where to work and for what tasks will help drive new levels of organisational productivity and engagement. Because there are choices and tensions, the best way to make decisions in your organisation will be to involve the employees and teams involved in a detailed consideration of how best to manage the work. That process alone will contribute new productivity ideas and new levels of engagement.

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