During the last year, more or less every executive board, management group, and team has discussed the flexible workplace. A new flexibility has come to stay, and naturally, leaders are reacting differently to it. In particular, we see 4 different archetypal views recur among leaders when the discussion centers on workplace flexibility.
Many things have changed at the workplaces, and we are moving towards a normality where flexibility – to a greater or lesser extent – is a permanent element at most places of work. The expectations from current and future employees have changed, and a new flexibility is here to stay. What makes this new is that no one is an expert in this new way of working.
Through our day-to-day contact with numerous different companies, we can see that, in particular, four different archetypal perspectives recur among leaders when they talk about or discuss the flexible workplace.
The 4 different views among leaders:
“We do things the way we did before COVID-19 and meet face to face.”
This is an argument we encounter among executives and managers – presumably because it is a familiar setup which feels safe and reliable to return to. Most leaders have been reared with this kind of work throughout their career. Some may even have been promoted because of the physical visibility at work, where for example, they would be among the first to turn up and the last to go home.
At the start of the pandemic, the traditionalist was concerned about productivity with respect to working from home. However, this was quickly proved wrong. On the other hand, the concerns of the traditionalist are supported by the group of employees that does not thrive when working remotely. For example, young employees, employees with low seniority, or the very extrovert, who crave the day-to-day contact at work. For these people and many others, remote work can lead to lower motivation, dissatisfaction, and insecurity.
See also: Dear leaders - now what? How to lead and set the course in a hybrid working environment
In a physical world, we know how to tackle dissatisfaction and other challenges by being attentive to each other’s signals and thus reacting on time. The traditionalists also have another strong argument, which states that the leaders are generally trained to manage in a physical world. Only the very few have the competences and skill necessary to manage remotely.
The individualist is represented by leaders whose views are based on what best fits the individual employee. If the individual feels satisfaction and they deliver as agreed, everyone should be happy. During the pandemic, we saw that this level of flexibility worked very well among lots of leaders and employees because it allowed for a better organized workday.
The individual perspective conforms to how we envisioned the work of the future in recent years – i.e. that we would work as free agents commanding a high level of influence on what we are working with as well as from where and how we are working.
See also: Do you listen often and broadly enough to your employees?
This mindset has previously appealed more to the American labor market than to the more regulated and secure European labor market. However, with the after effects of COVID 19, we may be able to have both job security and a very high level of individual freedom and flexibility at work.
That said, there is also a paradox with the individual viewpoint. The paradox is that we want to determine our own hours, but we also want to determine when we physically meet at the workplace in order to be with the team. This concept is called the “Hybrid work paradox”.
At the team level, solutions can often be found for the paradox, even though it can infringe on the perceived individual flexibility. Above the team level, this coordination is nearly impossible because it can require extensive coordination. Therefore, the individual perspective risks creating a reinforced team-based subculture that challenges understanding and work across organizational boundaries.
The culture bearer
We have named the third archetypal perspective we see with managers as the culture bearer. The perspective of the culture bearer is that both meaning and engagement at work are largely based on the company’s values and culture, thus constituting the actual cohesion of the company.
Company values have been very important during the pandemic, where most executive boards sent clear messages about “people being center stage”, which was received particularly positively by both employees and leaders. However, in the transition to a more normal day-to-day work, the values are emphasized less and operation is emphasized more. In the discussion concerning flexibility at work, we see that the culture bearer is concerned with the very high individual focus or for that matter the high team-based focus. The question is, how can we maintain and develop a common company culture if the individual and team are the primary focus? The culture bearer would argue that the executive board and HR should prove their worth. Lots of flexibility is fine for the individual, but the company needs to set an agenda, impose requirements, and initiate initiatives that bind it together.
First and foremost, the executive board and HR must ensure on an ongoing basis that managers are building on the same foundation of values and culture, thus introducing visible initiatives where the employees, together, can see the values and culture in practice.
The final view that often occurs in the discussion on the flexible workplace can be described as the CFO. This view is naturally based on a financial perspective in the discussion on workplace flexibility.
In particular, the CFO will become involved when a decision has been made on some level of flexibility. This means that a contribution may have been paid towards setting up a home office, and that the employee is working from home one or more days a week. At this stage, the CFO will argue that all the empty space, which is a remnant of the “old world” when everyone showed up at work physically, is not ideal.
See also: Stay human in a technology-driven world
The CFO will – perhaps rhetorically – ask if this money could not be spent better. And this is a very good question because flexibility requires that we re-think the physical workplace. Less space, but designed in a way where the focus is on what we are doing together when we are physically present (co-operation, discussions, development, etc.). Gone are the days at the office where you were sitting with a noise canceling headset from the moment you got there and until you went home. However, this also means that people cannot just decide to meet up whenever they want, that they have their “own” workstation, nor that all the employees can be assembled at the office without extensive coordination.
Flexibility and a general openness
The above views are rarely expressed in their pure form, but each view includes strong arguments for what it claims is best for the company.
We must all acknowledge that we are in unchartered territory and that we need to learn from the situation and the experiences that we have going forward. We have previously worked with flexibility, but due to the COVID-19 situation, nowhere near to the same extent as the expectations that exist going forward. Therefore, we also see a general openness towards the guidelines that are now established because the premise is that they can be adjusted as we learn more about how they affect our way of working and our personal and professional satisfaction.