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Distinguish Flexibility from Autonomy in Return-to-Work Policies

Employees want to decide when and where to work, but be mindful of core hours

A group of business people walking through a glass door.

A flexible approach to being onsite at work and working remotely is here to stay, say those who research the workplace and advise organizations on best practices. But some employers may be taking too narrow an approach to being flexible, some warn.

Flexibility is "a great draw for recruitment and retention," said Radostina Purvanova, a professor of leadership and management at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. She was among the speakers at a June webcast on balancing flexibility in the workplace, presented by The Principal Financial Group.

However, when employers say "flexibility," they're often not being clear about what they mean with the word. "You can have flexibility in terms of geographic location, meaning remote work," Purvanova explained, but "sometimes flexibility means time, as in when I am able to work. Sometimes it means how I am able to work and execute my job."

When Purvanova talks to employees, she said, "if you listen to what they're saying, they're not really talking about flexibility, they are talking about autonomy. That's an important differentiator."

Often, when employers say they are giving employees flexibility, they mean letting employees work from their homes two days a week, Purvanova said, "but then requiring that they come to office for three days. Well, that's not true flexibility."

What employees actually want, she believes, is autonomy in making those choices for themselves and "deciding where to work, when to work and how to work, on their own terms."

That prospect can be a scary proposition for employers who question whether they can trust employees, Purvanova said. But "if you're an employer who is truly interested in recruiting and retaining employees using a newfound love for flexibility, you have to pair that up with a newfound love for trust in your employees."

When employees feel that they can make those autonomous decisions, they feel more engaged with the organization, Purvanova advised. "They feel like they have to perform and do their best to earn that trust."

Work Schedule Considerations

During a July webcast hosted by Massachusetts-based MeQuilibrium, a digital coaching platform, Jan Bruce, the company's co-founder and CEO, recommended defining core working hours when implementing flexible work arrangements.

Whether people are now working onsite, remotely or in a hybrid capacity, she said, "we need to know when we can reach them, and that they'll be present for the part of the workday when it's likely that everyone is reachable."

Also participating in the MeQuilibrium webcast was Jeanne Meister, founder of the San Francisco-based Future Workplace Academy, which provides online courses to upskill talent. She advised giving employees and their leaders "both the flexibility and the autonomy to create the best work schedule that they can."

Meister said she has seen talented employees, including senior managers, "leave because in their organization, the policy was top-down—everyone is going to go to work, whatever it is, Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Often when you're arbitrary, it just doesn't work."

She added, "People are saying, 'Why go in the office on Thursday if all I'm doing is sitting there on Zoom?' The bottom line here is to give team leaders the authority to be flexibility with their teams."

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Return to Work

A Hierarchy of Arrangements

Employees' preference for autonomy over flexibility was the subject of a Harvard Business Review article last October by Holger Reisinger, senior vice president of large enterprise solutions at Jabra, a Danish company specializing in audio equipment, and Dane Fetterer, a staff researcher at Jabra.

They described a hierarchy of the most common work arrangements in terms of autonomy versus flexibility:

  • Low autonomy, low flexibility: I am mandated to be in the office full time.
  • Low autonomy, medium flexibility: I work from both the home and the office, but my organization tells me which days to be in which place.
  • Medium autonomy, medium flexibility: I can work from multiple locations but with a minimum number of days required in office each week.
  • Medium autonomy, high flexibility: I am mandated to work remotely full time but can choose where I want to work.
  • High autonomy, high flexibility: I can work wherever, whenever, with full access to my organization's office space.
"Maximizing employee autonomy is becoming less of a workplace benefit and more a necessary element to remaining competitive and relevant as an organization," Reisinger and Fetterer wrote. They proposed three steps for business leaders and team managers to give employees greater autonomy:

1. Establish principles, not policies. In a shift from policies to principles, "a minimum three days in the office per week may become 'there is inherent value in both the physical office and remote locations—we strongly encourage employees to consider which locations best enable them to most effectively carry out certain tasks,' " Reisinger and Fetterer explained.

2. Invest in competence and relatedness to the organization. Organizations that invest in skills development—not as an extrinsic reward but as an enabler of autonomy—"will improve their employees' ability to work autonomously," they wrote. They also advised giving employees "a clear line of sight to their role within the organization regardless of their physical location."

3. Give employees the tools they need to work autonomously from anywhere. "A specific location is simply no longer a prerequisite to working effectively or building a company culture," they noted. What's more important is for workers to have the right tools and technologies and to use them effectively.

"At the end of the day, it's up to each organization to determine which approach makes the most sense in the context of their culture, industry, and overall purpose," Reisinger and Fetterer wrote. But for those organizations whose employees have expressed a desire for increased flexibility, "enabling autonomy will be more crucial than dictating a required number of days in office."

They concluded, "Organizations that give employees the autonomy to choose their ideal way of working and support them with the right principles, training, and tools will result in a more flexible, more motivated, and higher performing workforce."

Arguments for Onsite Work

While employees may like remote work, it breaks down organizational cultures, Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan recently wrote. Especially for younger workers, "you learn things in the hall from the old veteran," she noted. "Without office-centered work, "there will be less bubbling creativity, less of the chance meeting in the hall and the offhand comment that results in brains sparking off brains."

Tesla CEO Elan Musk famously said earlier this year that employees at the electric vehicle company must spend a minimum of 40 hours in the office per week. "Tesla has and will create and actually manufacture the most exciting and meaningful products of any company on Earth. This will not happen by phoning it in," Musk said. 

Jamie Dimon, chairman and CEO of JPMorgan Chase, wrote in the investment banking firm's annual shareholder letter that while telecommuting may be acceptable in certain roles, people looking to advance in the company "cannot lead from behind a desk or in front of a screen."

Not all businesses agree. Paul McKinlay, vice president of communications and remote working at Cimpress, a Boston-based technology firm, has seen a 300 percent increase in job applicants since the company started allowing hybrid and remote work two years ago, Fortune reported.

"Working remotely has been proven to improve people's quality of life—and teams' productivity," McKinlay said.


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