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Flexibility and the workplace of the future: What does that mean?

Lessons learned amid crisis

Jon Lokhorst, CPA, ACC | February/March 2021 Footnote

Editor's note: Updated February 1, 2021

On Wednesday, March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the rapidly spreading coronavirus a global pandemic. Within days, employers across the world sent workers home to work remotely. Soon after that, a Gartner survey of top executives showed that roughly half of their organizations had more than 80 percent of their employees working from home.

Fast forward to today. Arguments continue about remote work’s viability, especially in organizations where it wasn’t prevalent before last March. However, it cannot be argued that the COVID-19 pandemic has indelibly changed the workplace of the future. It is increasingly shaped by flexibility about when and where work is performed.

Here’s the bottom line as you prepare to lead the workplace of the future: Creating flexibility by design gives your organization a better chance of success than allowing flexibility with ambiguity.

The pandemic and forced flexibility

As often happens during a crisis, the pandemic’s onset provoked a can-do, make-it-work spirit among employers and employees alike. It wasn’t without stress as many workers dealt with suboptimal work environments like unfinished basements, living room floors and storage closets. They had to acclimate to sharing space with other household members working from home. Working parents faced the added challenge of overseeing their kids’ distance learning.

Forced flexibility became the new normal. In-person meetings shifted to Zoom, Microsoft Teams and similar online platforms. The best managers found ways to replicate the subtle communication advantages of working together in an office environment. Virtual happy hours took the place of team lunches and coffee meetings.

Workers appreciated the tradeoff between long commutes and the few steps between their bedrooms and kitchens to their home offices. The abrupt changes were challenging, but many employees realized newfound work-life benefits in remote work’s forced flexibility. Not everything was coming up roses, but the work was mainly getting done in most organizations.

As Ulta Beauty CFO Scott Settersten told cfo.com, initially, “A firestorm erupted, and a dark cloud descended over us.” Eventually, he continued, “Everyone in finance executed their daily tasks, closed the books, and filed the financial statements on an entirely remote and virtual basis, something they had not done previously. It was a surprise to me just how well we performed.”

A necessity borne of crisis becomes an expectation

Weeks turned into months as the pandemic continued. Questions began to emerge about whether the new normal of remote work would continue into the next normal, post-COVID. Although polling results vary over time, most surveys indicate that more than one-half of employers and employees have an interest or desire to continue remote work in some form after the pandemic subsides.

In its poll of more than 1,000 finance executives during the third quarter of 2020, the AICPA Business and Industry Economic Outlook Survey found only 17 percent planning to return primarily onsite. Only 9 percent said they would continue to be fully remote. About 55 percent of these executives envisioned a mix of onsite and remote work, and 33 percent said their workplaces would be mostly onsite with some remote. In comparison, 22 percent predicted a primarily remote workforce with some work performed onsite.

Around the same time, CPA firm consultant Marc Rosenberg’s survey of 52 small to medium-sized firms indicated that about 36 percent of their employees would continue to work remotely. About one-half of them anticipated that most of their staff would return to work in-person from their offices.

Last summer, IBM’s survey of 25,000 adults found that 54 percent preferred to work remotely at least half the time, citing flexibility as a primary reason. Expectations for long-term remote work continue to grow as companies like Apple, Nationwide, American Express and Twitter announce the extension of work-from-home arrangements, in some cases, permanently. Microsoft’s model may become the next normal, allowing all employees to work remotely up to 50 percent of the time and others to be fully remote on a case-by-case basis.

The flexibility of remote work was also a prevailing theme in a recent survey of young professionals by the MNCPA. When asked what advice leaders should heed from their young employees, one respondent replied, “Allow a high degree of flexibility in work schedules and work locations.” Another response was even more pointed: “Let people work from home if they want!!”

If it wasn’t evident before, it is now. Organizations that provide flexibility in work arrangements will seize a crucial competitive advantage in attracting and retaining top talent.

What do you mean by flexibility?

Flexibility sounds great in theory but, without additional clarification, it is fraught with danger. Start with the dictionary.com definition of the word flexibility:
  1. The ability to bend easily or without breaking.
  2. The quality of being easily adapted or of offering many different options.
  3. The ability and willingness to adjust one’s thinking or behavior.
This definition doesn’t spell out a flexible work arrangement very well. The word itself is fuzzy when it comes to the workplace and it’s a concept for which beauty is in the eye of the beholder. In other words, flexibility is a potential trap for confusion and frustration between leaders and their team members. They mean well but could have distinctly different views of what flexibility means.

Communication expert Skip Weisman ranks scenarios like this at the top of his list of deadly workplace communication sins: a lack of specificity. In his book, “Overcoming the 7 Deadliest Communication Sins,” he describes the mixed messages that result from nonspecific words like flexibility. In many cases, the person using the word doesn’t even have it clearly defined in his or her own mind.

Weisman writes, “These types of conversations around performance, attitudes and behavior on the job devolve into debates and hurt feelings caused by misunderstandings, confusion and mixed messages.”

To overcome these pitfalls, create flexibility by design. Call for clarity about what flexibility means in your organization or for your team members.

Flexibility by design requires collaboration and clarity

Seek alignment among your team members as you design future work arrangements, whether they be in-person, remote or a hybrid model. Rather than issuing one-sided directives, make it a collaborative effort to develop win-win solutions. Be transparent about your role as a leader, navigating tensions between your organization’s business needs and your team members’ personal needs.

Engage in open, honest conversations about your model’s potential pitfalls and how you can work together to overcome them. For instance, one young professional in the MNCPA survey commented, “I really enjoy the work from home aspect. However, it does get a little lonely from time to time.” Another response advocated for “better hours during busy season.” Address challenges like these, even when there are no easy answers or ways to make everyone happy, all the time.

Establish mutually understood boundaries as you better define flexibility. Use questions like the following to clarify expectations that are easily overlooked or left unstated:
  • Are your team members allowed to determine their work hours and where they do their work?
  • Are they required to work or be available during certain core business hours or in specific locations?
  • When do they need to be accessible for meetings, email, phone calls, and other communications?
  • What is your standard timeframe for responding to messages, both internally and externally?
Remember, as you work together, creating flexibility by design will give you a better chance of success than allowing flexibility with ambiguity.

Jon Lokhorst, CPA, ACC, is a leadership coach, speaker, trainer, and author. He works with organizations to develop leaders everyone wants to follow, build teams no one wants to leave, and deliver exceptional results. Before launching Lokhorst Consulting LLC, Jon enjoyed a 30-plus year career as a CPA, CFO, and organizational leader. His new book, Mission-Critical Leadership: How Smart Managers Lead Well in All Directions, will be published in early 2021.