Part 2: Rethinking workplace autonomy and flexibility in the new normal

The era of the 9-to-5 office work looks to be over in Australia and for most parts of the world, with many of the nation’s largest employers are moving to hybrid work models. These flexible work arrangements are likely to stay beyond the pandemic. In this two part series, I will discuss how the new normal will affect how we view autonomy and flexibility in the new normal. 

In the second video of this two-part series, I explore how small businesses may benefit from a flexible work environment and discuss how they can create and nurture workplace autonomy and flexibility.  

A recent report by GitLab found that about 34% of Australian workers would rather quite their job and find new work if they were forced back into the office. In addition, 84% consider working from home or from anywhere as a competitive advantage for an employer. Workplace flexibility is dubbed as the new signing bonus for employment. 

There are many benefits to a flexible workplace, many of which will serve even small businesses. The cost advantage is that it may even lower overhead. Depending on your work arrangement, you may find that you don’t need to rent a large space to hold office or that you may be able to cut down on some of your ongoing utilities.

Work flexibility boosts productivity. A 2015 study by the Diversity Council of Australia found flexibility is a key driver of employment satisfaction. Workers look for flexibility to help them manage their personal lives. In turn, this helps them become more productive at work. 

Knowing all of this, how can a small business provide a flexible work policy for their employees while making sure that they operate productively and profitably? 

The key to making a flexible policy work for your business and your team is in understanding the four aspects of work autonomy, as I discussed the first video of this series. Flexibility means different things to different people, and will value different aspects of autonomy: 

  1. What work to do, or content autonomy  
  2. Where to do work, or location autonomy 
  3. When to work, or work time autonomy  
  4. How to do work, or work method autonomy.  

There are perceived challenges in setting up a flexible work environment in small businesses. Location and work time autonomy may be a challenge for certain businesses, such as restaurants, shops, and most businesses that cater to retail customers. However, flexibility also means thinking outside the box and finding solutions for problems. This means working with employees to craft a work policy wherein everybody wins. Oftentimes, employees already have answers and solutions for these challenges.  

In fact, a Harvard Business Review article claims that to make a flexible environment work for everyone, it is best to solicit input and feedback from employees themselves. A flexible work environment does not solely mean remote work or working from home—it means working on tasks that employees love to do, when they want to, where they want to, and how they want it accomplished and done—while bearing in mind deadlines, accountabilities, and goals. 

How are businesses responding to and adopting the work flexibility trend in the new normal? 

For many businesses that adopted a flexible work policy, the first thing that they changed was the mindset that a warm seat equates to a productive resource. What matters should be that customers are served and are happy. 

SixPivot, software company based in Brisbane, set up a simple remote work policy: team members have 38 to 40 hours a week to work with a customer however they want to, so long as the customer is happy. The policy is simple, but its value is in its ability to provide opportunities for team members to decide what work to do, where and when to do this work, and how to do the work, so long as they serve the customer well. 

Bell + Ivy, an integrated marketing agency based in California, USA, discovered that employees were split on whether they prefer working solely from home. So they decided on a “work from anywhere model” to give their employees the option to work from their office or anywhere they choose. The value in this policy is that it acknowledges that people have different ideas of what a suitable workplace looks like—while some feel productive working from home, some feel productive working in a café, and some prefer working in a traditional office environment. Not all homes are fit out to be a work station, and so people prefer to commute to a physical office to work.  

Businesses transitioning to a flexible work environment provide opportunities for collaboration, brainstorming, and problem solving. The lack of engagement in remote work is a concern for many. However, this need not be the case. Who Gives a Crap, a social enterprise founded in Australia has found a way to keep team members engaged despite working across 4 key time zones.  

They embrace asynchronous work, which means they allow team members to work on their deliverables at their own time, at their own pace while bearing in mind deadlines and responsibilities. To support engagement, they make use of overlapping time zones for team members to meet to collaborate, brainstorm and solve challenges. But they also respect that team members have personal lives who have personal responsibilities. They respect their team members’ time and understand that there are personal non-negotiables such as picking up kids from school and gym sessions. To facilitate setting meeting appointments, team members leave their calendars open and transparent, with both professional work and personal non-negotiables blocked off in their respective calendars. 

The biggest lesson in workplace flexibility and autonomy is that there isn’t a blanket solution for every organisation. People value flexibility and autonomy for various reasons. There is business value in promoting and adopting a flexible workplace—many studies have already shown that it contributes to employee morale, engagement, and productivity. The key to making a flexible environment work is in engaging all stakeholders in formulating a work policy to ensure that it serves everyone. 



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