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What is flexible work?

Flexible work means giving employees more autonomy and choice over where, when, and how to get the job done

Posted May 5, 2022 by Anna Brown

Reading time 7 min

To wrap your head around the concept of flexible work, you first have to abandon the outdated notion that work = office and the workweek = Monday through Friday, 9-to-5. This can be difficult for leaders, especially if you’ve spent the majority of your career climbing the corporate ladder in a traditional office environment.

But the pandemic showed that rigid schedules and co-locating in a physical office are not required to achieve business outcomes. In fact, many leaders discovered that offering their teams flexibility — more freedom and autonomy to choose when, where, and how to work in the way that suits them best — is the key to unlocking each employee’s highest potential and driving results.

Flexible work, defined

Flexible work means emphasizing business outcomes over where, when, and how the work gets done. It means holding employees accountable to results while giving them more choice and autonomy to work in the way that suits them best.

Flexible working is not a set of “one size fits all” rules or policies, but it’s also not a total free-for-all — it requires adopting a digital-first approach and setting up a framework to support cross-functional, asynchronous collaboration.

Flexible working pushes the boundaries of how we think about what it means to work together, asking organizations to determine the model that will drive the best outcomes for the business.

Most of the time when people talk about flexibility, they talk about location — and terms like “remote” and “distributed” largely suggest this kind of flexibility. But when it comes to flexible work, the when is actually more important than the where.

Sheela Subramanian
VP, Future Forum

Future Forum’s quarterly Pulse survey of more than 10,000 knowledge workers across six countries has found that while location flexibility is important — with 79% of workers saying they want flexibility in where they work — schedule flexibility is in fact even more important — with a whopping 94% of workers saying they want more control over their schedule. 

Source: Future Forum Pulse, Wave 6, conducted Jan. 27-Feb. 21, 2022. Number of completed responses = 10,818.

That desire for schedule flexibility is one of the reasons terms like “hybrid” or “remote-first” aren’t quite the right fit — they focus on location. To enable real flexibility, companies need to adopt a digital-first mindset, recognizing that the only way to give people the freedom and autonomy they need is to leverage digital tools that allow them more choice, not just in where they work, but also how and when

Benefits of flexible work

Adopting flexibility offers leaders a real opportunity not just to attract and retain talent, but to empower their teams to do their best work. So much of the way we had been working pre-pandemic was rooted in old norms and organizational models whose evolution largely stalled out decades ago, even as technologies continued to change and workforces became more diverse.

Listen to Future Forum Leader Brian Elliott talk about the future of work on the Eat Sleep Work Repeat podcast.

It took a crisis to open our eyes to it and force us to do something about it. As Slack Co-Founder and CEO Stewart Butterfield put it, “This is no time for retreat to the comfort of well-worn habits. We can’t respond reflexively. This moment demands a thoughtful and intentional response and will reward creativity in attempts to build a better workplace and world.” And that’s far more attainable than some leaders may realize. 

How to get started with flexible work

Flexibility, especially schedule flexibility, will only succeed if you are willing to set aside your preconceptions of how work should be done and think differently. But with so many seemingly competing ideas about what flexibility can mean to each person, team, and company, it can be hard to band together and create this kind of shift.

So where to start? We urge leaders to begin by identifying your flexible work purpose: WHY do you want to enable flexible work in the first place? Clearly articulate your why, and then align your entire leadership team behind it.

It’s in those often messy debates about how flexible work will support your business objectives that you begin to build a shared understanding and vision among your leadership team. You will then continue to build alignment as you take that purpose and translate it into a set of core principles and guardrails that will help you introduce your flexible work strategy to the rest of your organization. Because flexible work is not a total free-for-all — it requires setting a framework that allows individual departments and team leaders to determine what works best for their group. 

Flexible work example: Dropbox

Once you’ve identified your principles and purpose for flexible work, how do you go about implementing it? Consider the steps Dropbox took to lay out a flexible work strategy.

Prior to 2020, Dropbox had largely been an office-centric culture, and they’d invested a lot in creating what Chief People Officer Melanie Collins describes as “the most delightful work environment we possibly could.” But after shifting to remote work, Dropbox leaders were surprised to find that productivity and performance didn’t really miss a beat. That caused them to rethink what they’d been doing and accelerated their conversation around the merits and possibilities of flexible work.

Step 1: Form a team

Dropbox began by forming a team, co-led by Collins and Alastair Simpson, their Vice President of Design, with representatives from different parts of the company—design, tech, HR—to really study the issue.

Among the models they rejected was the typical hybrid one—where some people work remotely and others continue to come to the office as usual. This is, perhaps, the model most people think of first, but Dropbox decided it wasn’t right for them—the main reason being, as Collins explained, because it “creates two very different employee experiences that could result in issues with inclusion, or disparities with respect to performance or career trajectory depending on whether you are in the office or remote.”

Step 2: Experiment with flexible work models

The Dropbox team came up with a proposal that considered the real need for team members to connect and collaborate – through the concept of “core collaboration hours.” These four-hour windows of time each day when employees would be accessible to one another to do these very things, leaving the rest of their schedule open to get individual, focused work done when it suited them. 

Core collaboration hours needed to be aligned to time zones, for example, a window of 9:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. on the West Coast synched with Noon to 4:00 p.m. on the East Coast, which meant that everyone could collaborate during a reasonable timeframe but still allowed flexibility in the schedule so people could have lunch with a family member or pick up a kid from soccer practice.

Step 3: Embrace the culture shift

As they sorted through these kinds of issues, it became clear that to be successful, the company needed more than just a policy statement; they needed to create what Collins describes as a “deliberate shift in culture.” To introduce the concept and market the change required to support it, Dropbox provided everyone with a dedicated toolkit, an open and evolving guide with practical exercises and advice to help teams focus on the behavior shifts needed to be successful.

Step 4: Measure

After much work on shifting behaviors like getting rid of unnecessary meetings and embracing asynchronous work, Dropbox measured the impact of this transformation on things like retaining and attracting talent.

Based on internal surveys, they found that eighty-eight percent of their people preferred increased flexibility and eighty-four percent stated that they were as productive or more productive while working flexibly.

But the benefits went well beyond that. Leaders wanted to ensure their new flexible work model was helping them meet their key goals and financial objectives—and early results were more than promising. After implementing the new approach, they saw three times the number of applicants, 15% faster time to hire, and 16% increase in diverse candidates.

Developing the framework for leading your organization through a flexible work transformation will take time, but the results are worth it. Ready to get started? Check out the resources below.

Flexible work resources

  • Beyond hybrid: how to lead your organization through a flexible work transformation Part 1 and Part 2