The future of work is more than flexible
Post-pandemic flexible work arrangements are evolving, creating new challenges for businesses looking to balance their growth needs while attracting, retaining and developing the best talent.
Flexible work is a concept that has gained new meaning in a few short years.
Pre-COVID, flexible working arrangements might have meant an employee working part-time or casual hours, or an employer exercising the option of scaling up or down shifts as necessary to manage demand.
During the pandemic, flexible working morphed into enabling people to continue working from home as offices across the world closed.
But even as restrictions have lifted across the globe — the official Oxford tracker of government COVID restrictions shut down six months ago — the demand for flexible working has proved stubbornly resilient.
The term now is used to describe a spectrum of work that might be as simple as working away from the office — if an office still exists — through to non-standard contact hours, meeting-free days or four-day weeks.
It’s also been adopted by employers trying to lure workers back to their corporate desks, promising a more intentional, purposeful reason to be in the same room as colleagues.
The only thing certain about the meaning of flexible work in this era is that few definitions are alike.
“What is happening now is there is a recalibration or a redefinition of what it is to be flexible, and there are all kinds of models emerging,” says Baker Tilly Mooney Moore Consulting Partner Donal Laverty.
“Ultimately, you have to keep going back to what the technical definition of flexible working is.
“It’s a working arrangement that gives flexibility on how long, where, when and the length of time an employee works.
“But flexible working practices vary, they’re different and they mean different things, and therein lies the issue.”
Mr Laverty says COVID naturally accelerated the demand for flexible working, but at the same time blurred the lines between flexible working arrangements and the hybrid working model that often bears the same name.
Legislators were caught unprepared, he says, and workplace law is still trying to catch up.
“In the UK, an employee has the right to make a request for flexible working under the law,” he says.
“Hybrid working — a combination of remote working and working in the workplace — hasn’t been legislated and this is the difference in the term.
“From an employee perspective, they will come in and ask for hybrid working but what they actually want is more flexibility in their start time and when they are doing the work.
“That’s the concept behind agile working, that work is an activity rather than a place and therefore people have the freedom to work wherever, whenever.”
When traditional is no longer tradition
The nine-to-five office model was under threat even before the pandemic.
Formalised, at least in the US, by carmaker Henry Ford in the 1920s, the eight-hour, five-day working week had ballooned and US working time statistics from 2014 suggest the 40-hour week actually took 47 hours.
But COVID forced the world’s biggest workplace experiment on organisations around the globe, and the impact continues to be felt.
Pre-pandemic, only about a quarter of US workers said they did at least some work from home. That grew to nearly 40 per cent of all workers in 2021 and nearly 70 per cent among workers with a degree.
Pew Research Centre data released this year suggests a third of those who can work remotely in the US continue to do so every day.
In Europe, where a remarkable 85 per cent of workers had never worked from home pre-2019, only one in three want to return to that level of workplace attendance.
Androulla Soteri, Global Director of People at Baker Tilly, says remote work and flexible hours reflect the new working expectations of employees, even as some organisations grapple with how to sustain hybrid operations for the long-term.
She believes employers who embrace the combination of remote work and flexible hours, rather than resist the trend, experience significant upsides.
“Remote work allows individuals to operate from any location while fostering autonomy and reducing commuting stress,” she says.
“Employees who can choose their work environment, whether at home or a co-working space, often experience higher levels of motivation and productivity.
“Flexitime enables employees to customise their work hours, accommodating personal commitments and increasing job satisfaction.
“Employers who embrace this flexibility attract and retain top talent, reduce their turnover rates and boost employee morale.
“They can also make plans to reduce their office footprint and save on operational costs in the future.
“Flexible working arrangements are no longer viewed as mere perks but are essential elements of a modern and supportive work culture.”
Tight labour markets in many countries have driven home the importance of retaining talent, Ms Soteri says, and as businesses compete for the skills and labour, this has driven more extreme shifts in workplace policy.
Work from home has expanded to work from anywhere — some companies will pay for co-working or communal workplace spots rather than compel employees to return to the head office.
Stand-outs like AirBnB allow workers to spend up to 90 days a year working from one of 170 countries.
The US Department of Labor is encouraging employers to offer mental health days monthly or quarterly on top of ordinary leave, while employee review platform Glassdoor reports a surge in the number of reviews (most of the positive) for companies offering unlimited paid time off.
Ms Soteri says the groundswell of progress, and emerging opportunities offered by technology to remove less meaningful work from employee days, suggest the scope of flexible work will continue to evolve.
“Many employers now offer unlimited leave, disconnect days and are examining how a four-day week could work in their organisations,” she says.
“These measures can improve productivity, so employers need to start evolving their mindset from ‘this is too difficult’ to ‘how can we make this work.
“Finding ways to safely embrace generative AI technology is going to be key to cracking this nut.”
Employers grapple with expectations
For all the advantages from an employee perspective, employers continue to struggle with the logistical realities of flexible and hybrid arrangements.
Mr Laverty says the range of models and demands can make it difficult for organisations to support employees who work remotely or outside of normal hours.
“Most organisations are struggling with remote working culture,” he says.
“There are operational issues, cultural issues, management issues and then there is also the impact on an individual themselves in terms of how flexible working may distance them from the rest of the organisation.
“While every organisation is trying to support the rise in flexibility and the rise in home working, there are big risks and big challenges in terms of how you manage a dispersed workforce, and these are challenges both to the organisation and to the individual.”
Baker Tilly Argentina Partner Raul Yńarra has similar concerns about the impact of some flexible working policies on interpersonal relationships.
Mr Yńarra says workforces have grown accustomed to virtual meetings or teleconferences, an excess of email and a lack of in-person meetings or events.
He believes the sense of an employee belonging to a workplace culture can be challenged by flexible and hybrid working arrangements, particularly if face-to-face contact falls away altogether.
“I believe people and companies should work towards more in-person meetings and company events,” Mr Yńarra says.
“They are very productive, foster good relationships between employers and employees and create better outcomes than virtual meetings.
“In the long term, you can lose that concept of identifying with and belonging with the company.
“It is also difficult to build a truly integrated working environment while not having strong levels of face-to face communication can inhibit creativity and innovation.
“For us, full remote working is never recommendable — a good hybrid balance is the best option.”
Mr Yńarra sees an additional hurdle in developing talent and teaching existing workers new skills. Technology should assist here, he says, but it equally needs to be learned often through interpersonal contact.
“Addressing new trends and advancements in technology is one of the key issues when workforces don’t operate in a single location,” he says.
“A lot of aspects need to be considered, including educational curriculums, qualifying criteria, new technology, the rise of ESG and developing new skills and competencies.
“There is no doubt technology should make it easier and be a facilitator for flexible working, mitigating negative impacts and empowering positive ones, especially those related to communication, assessment, control and relationships.”
What will the future look like?
Unlike the relatively uniform response needed for a pandemic, long-term flexibility lacks a single agreed model.
Here, Baker Tilly experts believe there is an opportunity for businesses to identify and champion flexibility that works for their organisation rather than merely following the crowd.
At the same time, sifting through the options is complicated.
There’s a substantial difference between adopting flexible working in the form of the four-day hybrid week, and using technology to allow flexible engagement via the metaverse, where employee avatars join meetings.
Will these innovations deliver the necessary productivity and workplace culture dividends?
Mr Laverty says many organisations are starting by improving communication channels and having clearer management of the process.
“A new emerging concept is ‘anchor days’, where organisations support a flexible hybrid culture but there are certain days of the week where the entire team needs to be in the office,” he says.
“While there is a certain degree of fluidity in hybrid and flexibility, we are starting to see a little bit more structure and formality around the rules.
“Anchor days are a way of making sure that the team are all in the one place at the one time, so that’s a good day for communicating with them and supporting them.”
Ms Soteri says for flexible working to succeed, all levels of the organisation need to buy into the concept.
“Many employers are still against full flexible working policies,” she says.
“A business requires good planning, strong managers and a healthy workplace culture. If even just one of those inputs is absent, flexible working becomes challenging.”