Rethinking workplace autonomy and flexibility in the new normal

Part 1 of 2

The era of the 9-to-5 office work looks to be over in Australia and even for most parts of the world, with many of the world’s largest employers 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—and how this will affect how we work.  

In the first video of this series, I will discuss the workplace flexibility paradigm developed by University of California – Berkeley that challenges how we imagine flexible workplace to be. I explore the different ways that people view flexibility and how we can adapt a new mindset to help us take advantage of workplace autonomy and flexibility in the new normal. Finally, I discuss how businesses can support workplace autonomy. 

The flexible work revolution is set to be one of the most enduring legacies of the coronavirus pandemic, potentially reshaping Australia’s workplaces. 

Many companies in Australia from across different industries are moving towards the new normal with a flexible or hybrid work set up: 

  • In banking and finance, such as Commonwealth Bank, National Australia Bank, ANZ, Westpac, Afterpay 
  • In agriculture and mining, such as Wesfarmers and Rio Tinto 
  • Even in consumer-facing businesses such as Woolworths, Coles Group, Telstra, and Goodman Group, just to name a few.  

CHALLENGE: Workplace flexibility can mean many things 

But what does it mean to have a flexible workplace? Workplace flexibility can mean different things to different people. 

It can mean having the opportunities to choose when to work. For a caregiver, it can mean being able to leave work early to take an elderly parent to a doctor’s appointment. It may mean taking a midday run for a parent, so evenings can be spent with their children. And for others, it could simply be taking an hour in the afternoon to go to a yoga class or just to recharge.  

Flexibility can also mean having the opportunity to choose where to work or how they perform their work. It can mean attending a team meeting through Zoom on a Monday morning in a beach. It may also mean being able to make improvements to work processes to make them easier, simpler, or more cost-efficient. It also means allowing team members to decide on tasks and responsibilities that align with their roles. 

With the different definitions of work flexibility, how do you, as a business owner, afford flexibility to your team that will not only fit your business and organisational needs, yet still satisfy your team’s need for autonomy and flexibility? Let’s explore that. 

CHANGE MINDSETS: Understand four aspects of work autonomy 

They key to understanding work autonomy is to understand the different aspects of work autonomy. There are four: 

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

Hybrid and flexible work policies only work if it considers all four aspects of work autonomy. Previously, the focus has been on content autonomy or autonomy over what work to do. But the pandemic shifted the focus to location autonomy—where to work and work time autonomy—when to work, but with less attention given to work method autonomy or how to do work. 

Once we develop this mindset, what do we need to focus on next? How do we support authentic workplace autonomy? The UC Berkeley paradigm proposes three steps: 

  1. The first step is to say it: mandate a clear work autonomy directive. This means making it clear to all members that a flexible work policy is being put in place. 
  2. The second step is to support it: mobilise internal support for this mandate. Policy changes will require new or additional resources to help the team be more accustomed to the flexible work set up.  
  3. The last step is to monitor performance. Is it working? Is it not working? This step is crucial because this will provide you with information on what you need to do to sustainably support your flexible work policy.  

In the last half of 2020, Inventium, a business management consultancy firm based in Victoria, ran a six-month experiment of a four-day work week policy. This experiment proved to be a huge success for the organisation, making the four-day workweek permanent in Inventium. 

How did it become successful?  

Step 1: Mandate 

Their policy mandate was simple: everyone worked four days a week and had Fridays off. It was made clear to everyone that this will begin as a 6-month experiment. If it worked to everyone’s advantage, then they would continue and make the set-up a permanent one. 

Step 2: Mobilise 

To help top managers understand the sentiment and fears of everyone in Inventium, staff were asked to imagine why a four-day workweek would fail. The survey results show that staff were most concerned with decreased collaboration and team engagement. It is for this reason that they mandated that everyone take the same day off to ensure that everyone can meet and collaborate. 

Inventium was in the business of helping their clients improve workplace productivity. Therefore, they considered themselves already a productive team. However, they understood that working 4 days a week was entirely different from working 5 days a week. So they rolled out productivity training sessions for everyone and provided the team with 10 additional strategies to boost their productivity to help staff feel empowered to make changes in how they approach work and to adjust to the new work policy.  

Step 3: Monitor  

Top managers encouraged everyone to treat the four-day work week policy as an experiment for the 6 months that it was implemented. People were free to test their own hypotheses. For example, will a four-day work week improve productivity? Will it improve employee engagement? Will it affect client management? Team members were encouraged to run their own tests and choose their methods to test their productivity. 

By the end of this 6-month experiment, Inventium’s productivity increased by 26%.  

What can we learn from Inventium’s experience? Launching a hybrid or flexible work policy takes more than mandating where and when people can work. People value flexibility for different reasons and will take advantage of a new work policy differently. For a hybrid policy to work for both the organisation and the individual, businesses should also mobilise support, particularly training, and monitor performance. If and when successfully implemented, a flexible work policy will benefit your team and your business. 



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