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Beyond hybrid: create shared guardrails to keep flexible work transformations on track

Part two of a step-by-step guide for leading your organization through a flexible work transformation

Posted May 5, 2022 by the Future Forum team

Reading time 16 min

This is the second part of a two-part series on how to lead your organization through a flexible work transformation. In part one, we laid out how to establish your purpose and principles for flexible work. In this post, you’ll learn how to establish guardrails to keep your flexible work transformation on track. 

In Part 1 of this series we talked about the importance of principles in guiding executive decision-making. But principles set at the executive level are not enough — you also need guardrails to make sure that departments and teams across your organization can translate those principles consistently and equitably.

This playbook is for leaders who want to:

  • Align an organization behind shared guardrails for flexible work 
  • Translate flexible work principles into day-to-day habits and practices that support your flexible work strategy

What are guardrails?

Guardrails are just what they sound like: they’re the protective railings that keep you from veering off course. They create a framework for your flexible work principles by preventing double standards from developing across employee groups. 

They also guard against what we call faux flexibility — policies that appear to be flexible, but don’t give people the freedom and autonomy they are asking for (i.e. you have the flexibility to work from home, but only three days a week and you still need be available from 8:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m.). Or, the term can describe behaviors that run counter to flexibility (i.e. executives who still come back into the office full-time, five days a week, implicitly signaling that to succeed, people should abandon flexible options).

“Think of it this way: If your purpose is to unlock the power of talent in your organization, then guardrails are there to ensure that actually happens. Because if you’re not intentional about how you implement flexible work, you could end up having the opposite effect — by falling prey to proximity bias and creating a greater opportunity- and growth-divide between those who choose more flexibility and those who don’t.” 

Helen Kupp, Senior Director of Future Forum

Research from Nicholas Bloom at Stanford showed that, in one company, people working from home had lower promotion rates than their in-office counterparts — a full fifty percent lower — despite being as or more productive. It’s not clear from the study if the company was aware of the risk of uneven experiences, or if they did anything to avoid it. But that kind of proximity bias is still a potential pitfall that you should work to actively manage against.

Your flexible work GUARDRAILS, defined

Guardrails are the agreed-upon guidelines or parameters for behavior that will help people translate your principles into day-to-day habits and practices that support your flexible work strategy.

Guardrails are set and upheld at the organizational level, unlike boundaries, which are set and maintained by each individual.

How to set your flexible work guardrails

At Future Forum, we recommend setting guardrails for three main areas:

  • Leadership guardrails
  • Workplace guardrails
  • Culture guardrails

Leadership guardrails to ensure your leaders walk the talk

An executive in a real estate firm once described to us how, during an important meeting, most participants dialed in, but all the senior executives could clearly be seen on one tile, indicating that they were together in the boardroom. They assumed no one would notice, but everyone did. It sent a signal that the office was where people needed to be, even though that wasn’t their intention. The company wanted to promote flexibility, but the behavior of their leaders undermined the concept. This is a classic case of failing to lead by example.

If you, as a leader, are still coming into the office on a typical 9-to-5 schedule every day, then you’re sabotaging your flexible work strategy and undermining its principles (even if you don’t mean to). No matter what you say, no matter what your official policy states, if employees see you in the office regularly, they will believe they need to do the same if they want access to growth and opportunities.

At Slack, leading by example meant adopting what we call our “executive speed limits.” CEO Stewart Butterfield went around the room and asked each of his direct reports what commitments they would make to set an example. One that emerged was everyone committing to leaders to spending three days a week or fewer in the office. There was further guidance on how that limited time should be spent: on team events and customer interactions. In other words, the office is for those things that really require people to be present. That was the message Butterfield wanted leaders to communicate through their actions.

Take symbolic actions

A great way to lead by example is to take symbolic actions. Find ways to highlight flexible work across your organization. They can be simple actions, like when all executive team members at Telstra, Australia’s leading telecommunications company, changed their public profile pictures to show them working from home.

At IBM, CEO Arvind Krishna shared The IBM Work From Home Pledge early in the pandemic — not just to the organization, but on social media for all the world to see

The Pledge grew out of the experience an IBM consultant was having as she tried to balance working from home with having a ten-month-old baby who couldn’t go to daycare. One day her baby fell just before she had to get on a video call. Her child was okay, but her team could tell she was flustered with everything she had to manage. That got them talking about their new work situation and the new set of needs that came with it. They started challenging the usual norms of doing business and asking questions like, “If we’re working from home, do we really have to be camera ready for every meeting?”

That conversation resulted in the team coming up with a list of new norms for the work-from-home, lockdown era. They started sharing the list with others, and word about it spread quickly. Within about a week it came to the attention of senior leadership, and that’s when Krishna put it out on social media, to signal his support. 

This was early in the pandemic, when the company was navigating the sudden switch to working remotely for nearly all of their more than 250,000 employees. Since then, IBM has broadened its definition of flexible work to well beyond just working from home, encompassing schedule flexibility and hybrid (sometimes in, sometimes out of office) arrangements. As a result, team members are working on a new pledge to support their new style of work.

The IBM Work From Home Pledge

  • I pledge to be family sensitive.
  • I pledge to support flexibility for personal needs.
  • I pledge to support “Not Camera Ready” times.
  • I pledge to be kind.
  • I pledge to set boundaries and prevent video fatigue. 
  • I pledge to take care of myself.
  • I pledge to frequently check in on people.
  • I pledge to be connected.

Model vulnerability

IBM’s example highlights another way leaders can reinforce their flexible work principles: by modeling vulnerability. Change can be uncomfortable, and it can make people feel like they’re on shaky ground. In those early days of the pandemic, IBM Chief Human Resources Officer Nickle LaMoreaux remembers CEO Arvind Krishna saying often to their leadership team: “Remember, every day you are now being invited into somebody’s home. It’s important to act as guests with the kind of courtesy that’s expected from them.” 

It was a great way to frame the sort of attitude leaders can bring to everyday situations to normalize flexibility. You can do this by saying hi to the kid who accidentally interrupts a video call — or, better yet, by bringing your own family on to wave a quick hello. When taking time in your flexible schedule for an exercise class or to see your daughter’s school play, let people know not just when you will be unavailable, but why. Spell it out in your status message — spending time with mom for her birthday! — or however you communicate with your team.

Workplace guardrails to reimagine the role of the office

A successful flexible work strategy requires leaders to redesign the role of the workplace. What that looks like exactly will depend on the needs of your organization, but doing so effectively will require you to be intentional about setting guardrails to keep people from reverting back to old habits.

Shared space is for teamwork first

In our digital-first culture at Slack, showing up to the office is no longer the default; it’s the exception. As our CEO Stewart Butterfield explained, “Getting teams together in person should have a purpose, such as team-building, project kick-offs, and other events that are planned in advance, pairing flexibility with predictability.” Being intentional about the role of the office in this way creates a more structured view of what flexible work can be.

We also got rid of the “executive floor.” Before moving to a digital-first strategy, Slack’s corporate headquarters in San Francisco had a tenth floor that was tricked-out with a large boardroom and executive briefing center and a ninth-floor C-suite where the CEO and other executives had offices. If there was an important meeting happening at Slack, it was always on one of those two floors. They were known as the place to hang out to show you were around. To get people to think differently about the use of office space, we dismantled that and don’t believe there will ever again be a need for an executive floor. Per our new guardrails, when leaders are in the office, they’ll most likely be there to meet with their teams. For other interactions, as our executives frequently say, “Slack is our headquarters.”

It’s likely that you, too, will need to redesign the way you use your office space. Instead of plans for cubicles and corner offices, companies like MillerKnoll have focused on thoughtfully designed social commons that foster collaboration and connection. There may be more emphasis on creating zones for different kinds of work — quiet floors for concentrated work, for example, paired with social floors for team gatherings. If your “workplace” is no longer a building, that opens up a whole range of new possibilities for how you use your physical space.

“To achieve our vision of a ‘virtual mindset,’ we created workplace ecosystem guidelines and asked teams to establish norms that fit their unique needs and wants. These actions have led to healthy conversations and changes that are creating a culture in which everyone can feel included, respected, and supported in our new ways of working. From a physical standpoint, we evolved our workspaces to encourage collaboration and our teams have the freedom to choose if and when they need to come into the office.” 

Julie Anding Vice President and Chief Human Resources Officer for Harley-Davidson, Inc.

Julie Anding, Vice President, Inclusive Stakeholder Management, Harley-Davidson Motor Company

Keep a level playing field

In order to level the playing field, leaders need to drive a consistent experience and avoid “proximity bias,” or the risk that in-office workers will receive preferential treatment simply by being physically closer to their managers. 

Outside of intentional time together, meetings should be structured to enable remote participants to be equally present and part of the discussion. To ensure that was happening at Slack, we adopted the guardrail of “one dials in, all dial in,” meaning that either everyone gets together in a room for a meeting or everyone participates remotely, even if that means logging on to a video conference from a desk in the office.

It’s also important to think about the variety of methods you can use to encourage participation. Not everything requires a calendared meeting via video conference, which can disadvantage some groups, like those in different time zones, parents who are wrangling kids, or introverts who are unlikely to speak up on a crowded video chat. 

Don’t get us wrong: video conferencing is a great tool, one that has been a lifeline for so many, but it’s not the only tool you have. Sometimes communications platforms, chat, voice, and even asynchronous video — pre-recorded videos that people can watch on their own schedules — can work even better. 

There are a wide variety of tools out there for things like virtual whiteboarding, asynchronous brainstorming, or collaborating virtually on written documents. Be conscious of which tools you use and don’t just default to yet another meeting that crowds people’s schedules.

Rethink the role of offsites

Instead of focusing on which days of the week people should come into the office — the approach many companies have taken — leaders should be thinking about enabling teams to organize regular events that meet their own needs for team-building and productivity. That will likely mean equipping team leaders with new insights and tools.

For example, in a flexible model where team members are working from different places and at different times, people need to be given sufficient notice of events well in advance. Team leaders also need to be intentional about how their offsites are run. Priya Parker writes convincingly on this subject in her book, The Art of Gathering: How We Meet and Why It Matters: “Gatherings crackle and flourish when real thought goes into them, when (often invisible) structure is baked into them, and when a host has the curiosity, willingness, and generosity of spirit to try.” 

Leaders can answer four key questions to make sure they are being intentional about making their gatherings effective:

  • How can I be sure attendees will be comfortable and motivated?
  • What’s the topic and what do we need to achieve and produce?
  • Who will facilitate the event and how?
  • What tools will we need?

Executives need to think about how they can support team leaders in creating more effective gatherings, ones that are not only productive but also foster a sense of belonging. In the past, many companies have focused on in-office perks like free meals, coffee bars, or massages to do this, but those perks won’t work for a flexible, distributed team. 

Instead leaders need to give people better tools for both in-person and digital “offsites,” like team-level budgets for events as well as a menu of options (pre-approved items like food and swag and pre-approved vendors to provide them) they can easily pick from. 

Leaders also need to provide people to support these kinds of efforts, like facilitators who can help team leaders conceive of and plan the right sort of gatherings to meet their needs.

Culture guardrails to break old habits and norms

A flexible work culture is going to be different than an in-office one, naturally. But more than that, creating a new flexible work strategy provides companies with the opportunity to address some challenges that have long been part of traditional workplace cultures.

Moving beyond meetings

It’s a ubiquitous complaint in corporate culture: practically everyone is overwhelmed by meetings. And there are real questions about whether meetings are necessary to get things done, or if they are getting in our way far too often. In a survey of managers across a wide range of industries, researchers Leslie Perlow, Constance Hadley, and Eunice Eun found that more than 70 percent of people believed meetings were unproductive and inefficient, and 65 percent said meetings keep them from completing their work.

This doesn’t mean you should eliminate all meetings. But leaders should get a lot more intentional about the time you’re taking up on people’s calendars. So many meetings can be eliminated or broken up into parts. For example, your monthly sales meeting might start with a status update. Why not send that out beforehand? Presentations can be shared as decks or asynchronous video so people can review them in their own time. 

Tactics like these can lessen your meeting time considerably, and then time together can be more meaningfully spent on meaty discussions or team building. Dropbox uses what they call their “3D” model for planning meetings: debate, discuss, decide. We would add a fourth D for develop — time spent focused on honing individual skills or other professional development opportunities. If a meeting doesn’t meet at least one of those four objectives, then don’t meet. 

Guardrails can also be put in place to counter the assumption that people need to be available eight hours a day, five days a week for meetings. Tactics that we’ve seen work include Levi Strauss & Co.’s “No Meetings Fridays,” which aims to reduce internal meeting load and provide a day dedicated to focus time. Google adopted “No Meeting Weeks” years ago for some teams, and similarly Salesforce has adopted “Async Weeks” as a way to not only give people a respite, but also get meeting owners to think about whether each meeting is needed or could be cut in terms of frequency, attendance, or both. Slack’s Product, Design and Engineering team has “Maker Weeks” and “Maker Hours” — two-hour blocks, three days a week, where people can turn off notifications and do focused work.

Challenge the role of the brainstorm

One common concern about flexible work is that it will stifle creativity and innovation. After all, how can we come up with new ideas and solve tricky problems unless we gather together in a room and hash it out on a whiteboard? People often have trouble imagining other ways because they simply haven’t tried them. And in fact, there’s good evidence to suggest that they should. Numerous studies show that the often-lauded brainstorming session is a waste of time, at best; at worst it can lead to the dreaded groupthink and even harm productivity.

So-called ”brainwriting” has been shown to be a better way to generate new ideas, and it requires a kind of hybrid approach that flexible work is particularly well suited for. In fact, the best-known way for groups of people to generate new ideas is to work individually before working together.

Brainwriting starts with individual work, allowing time and space for people to think deeply and freely about ideas without fear of judgment or the influence of louder or more senior voices in the room. You ask everyone to commit their ideas to paper, and only then are they shared and debated — an approach that has been shown to elicit better results. 

According to the Harvard Business Review: “A meta-analytic review of over 800 teams indicated that individuals are more likely to generate a higher number of original ideas when they don’t interact with others.” By contrast, the old way of brainstorming “is particularly likely to harm productivity in large teams, when teams are closely supervised, and when performance is oral rather than written.”

One of the reasons the brainwriting approach works so well is because it gets more people involved. By allowing ideas to be generated ahead of review, you help create psychological safety for diverse teams and involve more voices that might normally go unheard in rooms where senior and more extroverted voices tend to dominate. It also helps guard against remote workers becoming alienated from such processes. 

Checklist for establishing your flexible work guardrails

  • Do you understand what guardrails are and why you need them to support flexible work and fulfill its purpose of unlocking potential for all the people in your organization?
  • Have you considered what leadership guardrails you might need to put in place to ensure that executives are modeling the behaviors they want to see in others and not undermining the potential for success?
  • Have you considered what guardrails you might need to put in place to help people reimagine the role of the office and ensure a level playing field in a flexible work environment?
  • Have you considered what guardrails you might need to put in place to challenge old habits and norms and replace them with new, more effective ones — including how you’re going to break your meeting-dependent culture?