And Mitigating the Extra Workload That Comes with That Change
Flexible working may perhaps have started out as a perk for the lucky few, but as a post-COVID vaccine world emerges, it is making itself into a widely accepted—or even encouraged—policy for a safer return to work. Though it may not be the death knell for the outdated 9 to 5, attitudes the world over have made a massive shift from “it’ll never happen!” to that of becoming standard practice.
A temporary yet sharp increase in workload before benefits and enhanced efficiencies are achieved are par for the course when going through a seismic change in any organization. How this workload is mitigated is the true test for any organization.
The Uptick in Flexible Working
Employers the world over have had to place a lot of trust in their workforce, and challenged their own beliefs that staff without a manager spying over their shoulder are inclined to slack off. That gamble paid off for employers: according to a survey of 16,000 employees at a Chinese firm, employees who were permitted to work flexibly increased their productivity by 13%.
Meanwhile, the slice of the workforce pie that consists of millennials is continuously growing. A notoriously tricky group to appeal to, flexible working resonates strongly with them. COVID has in fact been a catalyst for change to the working environment that suits them much better, with—according to the Deloitte Global Millennial Survey 2020—84% now utilizing some form of flexible working. By overlooking the growing demand, businesses are missing out on a large chunk of talent that now expects at least some form or flexible working.
The hesitation from many leaders across organizations though is palpable. People say change is good, and that change is for the better. However, those people often have not yet thought through what ‘change’ entails. Leaders are not made leaders for nothing, they are acutely aware of all the hard work required to make change a success, and how to offset as much of it as possible.
With many nations’ vaccine rollout charging ahead at full steam, the return to the office is not just a speck on the horizon. It is a critical moment for business and organizations to reconsider their policies, and how to adapt to this brave new world. Stick with the old and fade out of existence, or grab a ride on the high-speed train to the future and adopt future-centric work policies today.
The journey to a fully-functioning flexible working policy is a long road with plenty of hurdles along the way. Understandably, stakeholders across many organizations are focused on the barriers that must be broken through first, and the massive spike in short term effort that is going to be needed to make it a success.
An essential aspect of flexible working will be where and when staff work. Time in the office will become even more precious as there is less of it. Furthermore, staff will only venture to the workplace to specifically attend essential meetings that demand some good old face-to-face communication or to collaborate with colleagues and clients. Scheduling will become absolutely essential; when a meeting room needs to be guaranteed weeks in advance for an important client, or two colleagues need a quick ad hoc brainstorm session. Scheduling may be that little detail that could make or break flexible working.
A Steep Learning Curve
The learning curve will be a steep one. Employers will be worrying about whether their employees be trusted to fulfil their contracted hours and stay productive. HR will be worrying how their systems will cope with managing their no longer centralized workforce. IT will be worrying about how to keep all business-related communications private and secure. Lastly, facilities managers will be worry how to adapt their workplace to one that will potentially be seeing a lot less use, maintain high sanitary standards and automating potential aspects of the office.
All these new policies seem daunting, but we need not look far into the past for proof that we can adapt. At the dawn of the pandemic, many organizations had no chance but to rapidly evolve on a day-by-day basis, with next to no planning or preparation. Thankfully, this time round , leaders are afforded the luxury of time to adequately plan and implement policies that facilitate a positive shift towards adopting a flexible workforce.
Technology Will Widen Its Scope
Technology will assume two essential roles in not just enabling a flexible workforce, but also ensuring a safer return to work post-vaccine. Agile laptops will replace bulky desktops computers, fixed workspaces will continue to decline in favor of hot desking, and feature-rich reservation systems for not just aforementioned hot desking, but all manner of meeting rooms and spaces.
Organizations must now also navigate a myriad of disease prevention measures or risk falling foul of the law. The automation of many aspects of businesses will ensure a reduction in non-essential social interaction in areas such as many reception duties (temperate measuring, guest registration, wayfinding, etc.), regular sanitization of shared areas and spaces, and data collection for the purposes of contact tracing.
Overcome the Initial Work Overload Increase of Shifting to Flexible Working by Partnering Strategically
So, it has been decided by upper management that these policies will be get the green light. When, it falls to the lower-level managers—the facilities managers, operations managers, IT, HR and so on—to get these new policies off the ground, it is easy for departments to fall into a tunnel vision trap, to focus purely on their mountain of rising tasks, ignoring other internal departments or potential external partners who can offer a fresh pair of eyes as another means to solving a problem.
As with all organizations these days, there is always some crossover where the edge of one department meets another. Therefore, when facing the challenge of adapting to flexible working, departments cannot afford to silo themselves. Rather, they should be looking for suitable candidates with who they can strategically partner with to reach a solution. Sharing the burden in this manner can avoid weak points appearing in the chain that may have previously appeared with too much pressure on a single point, as well as avoiding the common issue across large organizations of duplication of efforts due to poor communication.
When it comes to solutions that cannot be solved internally, business should look outward and strategically partner with providers who can efficiently fill those gaps. As mentioned earlier, scheduling will be a deciding factor of the success of flexible working. In the technology-enabled future workspace, for extended capabilities such as desk booking systems and meeting room scheduling, Outlook’s Calendar has met its limit—with a lack of support and features—organizations are going to need to look outwardly and create partnerships that facilitate the digitally-enabled workspace that is feature-rich and capable enough to handle the needs of the distributed workforce.
This pandemic may not be the nail in the coffin for the 9 to 5, it is however a moment of enlightenment for employers and employees alike in the creation of a more agile, flexible workforce. Technology and sourcing the right partners will demonstrate themselves as being essential when offsetting as many of the growing pains as possible, as well as making the overall process and implementation of new policies less burdensome.
Developing a work environment that fits both the changing world and the changing expectations of a workforce that expects more flexibility will remain a challenge, and require a great deal of effort, but if past experience is to go by, it is certainly achievable. With said workforce becoming increasingly mobile, and time spent in the office becoming more precious, pinning down a physical space to work or hold a key meeting within the office space will emerge as a big challenge. How organizations solve scheduling and space management will shape their long-term success when shifting to a flexible and agile workforce.
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