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How the Future Works

How the Future Works

The pandemic turned the traditional nine-to-five workday on its head out of necessity. The two-year (and counting) global case study in remote/hybrid work has irrevocably changed how many people want to work moving forward. With the worker’s market driving change, savvy organizations are rethinking the way we work long-term in the new digital-first workplace.

My article title comes directly from a must-read book by Sheela Subramanian, Helen Kupp, and Brian Elliott, co-authors of How The Future Works: Leading Flexible Teams to Do The Best Work of Their Lives. Sheela Subramanian and Helen Kupp, co-founders and executive leaders at Future Forum, joined me on my Your Working Life podcast to discuss how to unlock the power of flexible work to benefit the worker and the organization. You can listen to the episode here.

Flexibility drives satisfaction.

Future Forum equips leaders to drive transformation at work and their research cites flexibility as the most important driver of job satisfaction behind compensation. Flexibility is not only about where you work, but when you work.

Scheduling flexibility is more important than location flexibility for many. Office knowledge workers, according to Future Forum, with little or no ability to set their own work hours are far more likely to look for a new job in the coming year, compared to those with schedule flexibility.

The great disconnect.

The Great Resignation is still a trending term, and the root cause of the mass exodus is that in many organizations, the executives and the employees are still not on the same page when it comes to flexible work. The disconnect is real.

Executives have always had more flexibility in their work and may not be cognizant of what is happening in the employee trenches.

In their book, How Future Works, the co-authors share data points from a Future Forum study that shows the divide between leadership and employees: 

  • Executives have a 62% higher rate of satisfaction than employees.
  • Non-executive employees report twice as much work-related stress and anxiety.
  • 68% of executives surveyed want to work in the office all, or most of the time – three times the number of non-executives who said the same.

People from all levels of the organization must be involved in designing flexible work plans, since there is no one-size-fits-all approach in the new world-of-work.

[Related: Why Employee Wellbeing Should Be at the Forefront of Every Back-to-the-Office Strategy]

Bust the flexible work myths.

Let’s be clear, the negative myths about flexible work are not backed up by data:

  • Some express concern that flexible work will negatively impact productivity. Research shows the opposite: Flexible work increases productivity.
  • Flexible work can also lead to better creativity and innovation, but many fear it will inhibit growth, which is not the case.
  • Many leaders worry that flexible work will erode company culture and employee connectivity. Research indicates that flexibility is a critical tool in improving a sense of connection and belonging.

Diversity, equity, inclusion, belonging, and flexibility.

Flexible work leads to a greater diversity of applicants and a wide talent pool for organizations seeking to fill critical roles, retain top talent, and build a leadership bench for succession planning.

Subramanian and Kupp shared on my podcast that Dropbox saw a 16% increase in diverse candidates and three times the number of applicants with flexible work offerings. Slack hired 1/3 more remote-based historically discriminated employees than office-based.

We know that diverse teams out-perform their non-diverse peers by growing faster and being more innovative. Flexible work enables diversity in practice.

New measures for success.

Butts in seats is an antiquated activity-based measure of success that equates to hours, keystrokes, and presenteeism. A results-driven approach turns the old model upside down to focus on a more holistic outcomes-based approach.

[Related: Why Hands-On Training is the Key to Maximizing Job Success]

Break away from perpetual meetings.

Nobody enjoys endless meetings that suck the oxygen out of day and eliminate white space on the calendar to reflect, think creatively, and do the work. The co-authors of How Future Works suggest the Four-D model where meetings should only be held when team members need to engage in: Discuss, Debate, Decide, and Develop actions.

Savvy companies like Google have “no meeting weeks” and Slack’s “Maker Weeks” where people can turn notifications off and relish in meeting-free time to do focused work.

I also learned about “core collaboration hours” where team members are available for synchronous collaboration. This unlocks more productivity than having set working hours when employees feel they need to be on all the time. These core hours can change based on the needs of the team honoring flexibility in life and work.

Flexibility supports wellbeing.

It’s clear that flexibility supports workplace health and wellbeing. The return on investment is better productivity, outcomes, and retention. The talent wars continue, and companies must be willing to rethink how people work to attract and retain a loyal workforce.

If this sounds appealing but daunting, check out the How The Future Works toolkit from Future Forum to create a framework for flexible work principles you can customize in your organization.

Be bold and test drive.

With flexible work and digital tools emerging as norms in many industries, leaders need to redefine the role of managers and reskill them for success. Investing in coaching, structured feedback, and recognition is a great start.

While flexible schedules may seem unrealistic or a mountain too high to climb in your organization, take a deep breath and consider a pilot program as an experiment. Tap an entrepreneurial spirit and design a prototype with input from all levels of the organization and give it a test period to see what works and what doesn’t and then iterate to make it better.

Building a culture of transparency and a willingness to try new things to empower employees to succeed will add to the engagement and retention of top talent. Flexibility as a core work value is not going away and it will determine where people choose to work. Honoring flexibility is a smart way to future-proof your organization.

[Related: What Employers Can Learn From "The Great Resignation"]

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Caroline Dowd-Higgins authored the book "This Is Not the Career I Ordered" and maintains the career reinvention blog of the same name. She is Vice President of Career Coaching and Employer Connections for the Ivy Tech Community College system and contributes to Thrive Global, Ellevate Network, Medium, and The Chronicle newspaper in Indiana. Her online video series about career and life empowerment for women is on YouTube. She hosts the three-time award winning podcast, Your Working Life, on iTunes, Spotify, and SoundCloud. Follow her on Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+, and Twitter. Her TEDxWOMEN talk about reframing failure and defining success on your own terms is available on YouTube.


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