Ultra-flex working in a post-pandemic world?
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Chris Oliver
Chris Oliver is a director at People + Culture Strategies in Sydney, Australia

The covid-19 pandemic has posed challenges for almost all employers and opened opportunities for some. Spotify and Salesforce have both made headlines of late after announcing their employees may continue to work from home post-pandemic, and Spotify are reported to have taken that a step further by announcing employees could work from anywhere. Is this the start of a trend other employers are likely to replicate?

Flexible work arrangements for most Australian employers have, historically, fallen into the category of part-time or minimalist work-from-home arrangements that are accommodated, either because the individual falls within a class where flexible work arrangements must be considered, or as a “one-off” arrangement to retain a valued employee.   

With around 12 months of flexible work data having now being banked by most employers, we are certainly seeing a clear trend for social and organisational discussions around the potential for broader and more permanent flexible work arrangements.

Many of our clients are either exploring these questions proactively, or in response to employee questions as to why the pandemic work arrangements cant continue on a permanent basis. For others, these issues are being explored in response to employee push-back as many Australian employers undertake a return to office-based working arrangements.

At this stage, change within many Australian employers is likely to be characterised by:

  • opening a discussion for flexible work arrangements to employees generally, and beyond those who otherwise might fall into limited categories where flexible work arrangements must be considered;
  • greater confidence and comfort in having discussions around flexible work arrangements, rather than a misplaced inertia to those discussions based on unknowns, a lack of trust or fears for what might happen; and
  • flexibility for occasional work-from-home arrangements, but with the office still being the core workplace for most employees.

In contrast, the ultra-flex arrangements flagged by companies such as Spotify and Salesforce appear to be within the minority, and likely for a range of good reasons. Ultimately though, for most Australian employers (and indeed most Australian employees), the employment relationship and ultra-flex working arrangements simply arent plug-and-play models. 

For many employers and employees, the employment relationship is more than a mere transaction

At this stage the movement to ultra-flex work arrangements appears to be the realm of large tech and those highly entrepreneurial businesses that sit at the “disruptor” end of the corporate continuum. Undoubtedly, for those organisations there are a range of cultural alignments and short-term commercial benefits. These organisations have disruption and innovation at their core, and those who aspire to work within those organisations are often attracted to the disruptor and entrepreneurial brand. Alternate ways of working are a natural part of their DNA, and the nature of the work often does not mandate the need for office-based workspaces. For these organisations, working from home may just be hot-desking 2.0.

But for many employers and employees, the employment relationship is more than a mere transaction. While at the core of every employment is a promise to work and a promise to pay, for most employers and employees the relationship is almost always so much more. For many employees, their employer, the work they perform and the community aspects of work forms an integral and valued part of their identity. 

Whether its social drinks, light and architecturally designed communal eating areas, team building days, or the introduction of a ping pong table, the pre-pandemic focus for most employers was a proactive approach to promoting employee interaction as a means of building engagement and facilitating collaboration and innovation.  

The building of positive, constructive relationships takes time and effort, as does their maintenance. Within a “work from anywhere” model, the opportunity for micro-interactions, a shared lift-ride, a quick chat at the microwave, or a serendipitous passing in the hall doesnt happen. Interactions need to be scheduled. Relationships need to be maintained through the inevitable youre on mute”, frozen video and background filters designed to create a virtual barrier between our workplaces and our homes. Unless there is a work purpose for the interaction, it generally doesnt occur. Unless it can be scheduled within brimming diaries, it doesn’t occur. Within these models, effective and new ways of building relationships will need to be found, lest the virtual workplace devolve into a loose system of siloed interactions. 

Theres a growing discourse with respect to the benefits for employers in ultra-flex working arrangements, although at this stage that discourse is largely management driven, rather than the empirical results reported from those who are directly managing people. While at the front of the wave, ultra-flex working arrangements are a point of recruitment differentiation. It opens the opportunity to recruit talented people from a wider candidate group. It opens the door for a smaller bricks-and-mortar footprint and resulting short-term cost savings. 

Anecdotally, such arrangements also have produced short-term productivity improvements and short-term employee satisfaction as the work-from-home honeymoon continued, and employees converted a portion of commute time into work time. On the productivity front, it’s yet to be seen whether those improvements are a result of employees spending more time at home with nothing to do or something else, and whether those improvements will be sustained over time and within a post-pandemic world. Despite the discussed benefits, additional challenges for employers include:

  • the removal of the cultural and brand benefits of candidates attending their future workplace for interviews, and experiencing the office “walk-through”;
  • the challenges associated with on-boarding new employees;
  • building relationships beyond an employees direct reports and immediate team;
  • aligning and maintaining employee behaviour within the companys culture, particular for new employees;
  • the building and maintenance of an organisational culture;
  • ensuring the way employees are working within their flexible work arrangement doesnt create latent back-pay issues;
  • security of confidential information and IP;
  • the erosion of the organisational culture; and
  • the innumerable challenges associated with the management of a dispersed workforce by a cohort of managers whose promotion has been largely driven by technical achievement, rather than their people management skills.

The benefits for employees are obvious, and many. The absence of the daily commute and the conversion of commute time for other purposes. The ability to step away from the corporate uniform. The perception of flexibility and a sense of self-regulation and responsibility. By contrast, the challenges for employees include:

  • building new relationships, particularly for new hires;
  • understanding organisational culture;
  • learning systems of work;
  • the loss of organic and opportunistic learning through interaction, the quick question over the workspace divider, overhearing the way a successful colleague communicates with a client;
  • the reduction in social interaction;
  • the tendency for extended work days;
  • a loss of connection, and identity; and
  • the reality that for most employees, their homes are not designed to incorporate home offices, resulting in employees working from sub-optimal and shared workspaces.

This is not to suggest that improved flexibility and even ultra-flex arrangements are either unworkable or unlikely to bring about tangible and valuable benefits for some employers and some employees. Instead, all of this is food for thought when considering whether Spotify’s and Salesforce’s arrangements are right for your business, and for the long-term relationships your organisation needs to develop with your employees.