Header-Workplace Flexibility

If you’re a manager, how do you know that your team is working hard? Traditionally, managers relied on timesheets and 9-5 attendance in offices where they could see their employees at their desks. But the fact is, none of these tactics is actually a good indicator of good work. It turns out, rules that once defined the white collar workplace don’t matter as much as we once thought.

Enter the flexible workplace.

Everyone works differently, and a flexible working arrangement is a major factor in employee satisfaction. As a manager, you can enjoy the fruits of better team productivity, performance, and wellbeing by allowing for a bit more freedom.

What is workplace flexibility?

Workplace flexibility can be broadly defined as any approach to work that accommodates different needs on the part of the employer or employee. In practice, however, workplace flexibility usually means specific types of flexible workplace practices.

Flexible work hours

Flexible work hours mean employees have the freedom to choose their hours, or some say in the hours they work. Instead of requiring employees to clock in at 9 and clock out at 5, they have a say in their own work hours. This can help them avoid a busy commute or make the most of their peak productivity.

Another type of flexible work schedule is to let workers choose not just when they work but also how long they work. After all, Parkinson’s Law claims that work expands to fill the time allotted for it. Why not empower workers to get their work done more quickly?

One important caveat: the culture needs to follow. If you’re technically allowed to sign off any time but feel implicitly pressured to remain available until your boss has also signed off, all the policies in the world won’t help.

Flexible scheduling

Work flexibility means accommodating worker needs when it comes to the days they work, and the days they take off. There are many forms that this can take.

This might be offering part-time work. Or, the option for a compressed workweek that deviates from the typical 9-5, such as a 9-80 work schedule or 4-day work week. Sabbaticals are another way to introduce flexibility. Once the domain of academic careers, at some companies (including Toggl Track) sabbaticals are written into the job benefits.

Unlimited paid time off (PTO) is a policy that doesn’t put a limit on the number of vacation days an employee can take. But paradoxically, an unlimited number of days off might feel less freeing than a fixed number, as employees may feel pressured to take less.

“Unlimited PTO came up a few times as a thought experiment at Toggl Track, but the conclusion was always that it discourages people to take advantage of it and people end up taking fewer vacations.”

Szokratesz Kosztopulosz, Team Building Manager at Toggl Track

Flexible workspace

Flexibility in terms of where you work, including remote work and distributed work, is perhaps one of the most common forms of workplace flexibility. Remote work took off in a dramatic way at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, and while many colocated offices have returned, location flexibility has remained.

There are various degrees of workplace flexibility. Some workplaces require that the worker remain in the same city or timezone as the location of the company, but allow occasional work-from-home days. Other organizations allow even more leeway

Tech giants such as Twitter and Spotify allow most employees to work from anywhere in the world, while leaving open the option of working from an office.

Then there are fully distributed workplaces like Toggl Track, where everyone, from the CEO to the developers, marketers, and support team, is scattered across the globe. The advantage of fully remote is that a hybrid system where some are commuting daily while others remain remote can contribute to the rise of subtle inequalities or the creation of cliques.

Why should managers care about workplace flexibility?

Some companies promote flexibility as a core tenet of their shared team values, but your organization might not see the value in it. Flexible work options can be so beneficial, for whole companies and individual teams. Here’s why.

Workplace flexibility boosts employee productivity

Location flexibility saves workers time on a long commute. It can also help remove the distractions of a colocated office. Flexibility in work time can help workers find and take advantage of their peak hours.

For example, one content writer who shifted the start of her workday to noon found that she was able to stave off burnout. And according to Olivia Ng, a UX/UI Designer who handles Marketing Development at Toggl Track, choosing her work hours allows her to work productively when she’s feeling her best.

I track my time every day so I can see where I’m most productive. Some days I feel like I’m super exhausted from work and I think that I’ve worked a ton but I check my tracked time and it’s only been four hours. That’s when I know I need to call it a day.”

Olivia Ng, a UX/UI Designer who handles Marketing Development at Toggl Track

At the same time, she doesn’t have to waste time feeling guilty because she can make up for it another day. That’s the real beauty of true flexibility at work. ”Nobody is hounding me to be productive every single day,” she concludes.

“You can’t work if you are sick. Nor can you work if you have to take care of your child. It’s in the company’s best interest to make sure the employee knows that they won’t lose their job because they got sick. This way everyone is happier and more productive.”

Toggl Track’s Team Building Manager

Flexibility boosts autonomy and employee retention

Allowing workers to manage their own time and work where they want to can improve efficiency and employee engagement. People can work when and where they can best focus. It can also demonstrate trust in your team, which makes people feel more autonomous and personally accountable at work. All of this has tangible benefits for employee retention and reduced employee turnover.

40% of those interviewed stated that schedule flexibility was one of the top three factors when considering jobs in a 2017 survey from ManpowerGroup. Beyond that, FlexJobs found that a lack of flexibility can actually send employees job hunting.

30% of respondents said they left a job, and 16% said they were looking for a new job, because of the lack of workplace flexibility.

A 2019 survey from FlexJobs

Flexibility represents the future of work

Even if you’re not sold on the above benefits, you may soon be forced to care. More and more organizations are moving ahead with flexible policies for their workforces. And it will be up to managers to enforce these policies, and enable their team members to take advantage.

“Workplace flexibility is increasingly being seen as an integral part of a new results-driven culture.”

A 2014 whitepaper from the Society of Human Resource Management (SHRM)

And flexibility is also directly linked to a diverse and inclusive workplace, according to another SHRM post. Rather than respond reactively, thinking about flexible work policies proactively can help you remain ahead of the curve — and the competition.

How to create more flexibility for your team

Workplace flexibility does not mean the absence of rules or guidelines. As a manager, there are things you can do with your team to promote a more flexible work environment.

1. Observe

There are many approaches to workplace flexibility that you can learn from. But before you give employees the go-ahead, it’s important to assess your team’s situation and what’s available to them.

There might be policies or options available at your organization you’re not aware of. Or perhaps other team leaders are initiating flexible practices on their teams. Connect with other members of leadership to get a sense of how people work in different departments. Consider what might make sense (or not) for your team.

Consider things like: what is your team in charge of? Attempts at schedule flexibility might be limited by the demands of your clients or collaborators. Do people work from different time zones, or different locations? Consider all of this as you strategize.

2. Introduce

When you bring in new policies or options, it’s important to consider three key factors:

Think about the structures you’ll retain

It’s not enough to just remove restrictions. For example, teams that work remotely on different schedules will often maintain an overlap in which all the members are working synchronously. Alternatively, you might want guidelines in place for responding in a timely manner to asynchronous messages.

Keep your eyes on the prize

If employees can work from home but end up having to work during their commute time, then it’s hard for them to feel the benefits of the time saved. Similarly, remote work can lead to micromanagement and surveillance at some companies, which is the opposite of flexible. Think about how you can encourage trust instead.

Remember that policy is not practice

Consider culture — the unspoken rules that govern behavior. There is a reason dads often don’t take paternity leave, and it’s not just because it’s often not fully paid. Create an environment where employees feel safe taking advantage of this flexibility without fear of repercussions for their career or salaries.

3. Evaluate

Remain open to receiving feedback and finding possible unintended consequences. If a particular approach to workplace flexibility isn’t working for your team, change it. And if it does, embrace it.

The important thing is to remember that when done right, workplace flexibility is an arrangement that can benefit both worker and employer. A gig work contract that demands that the worker bend over backwards for the needs of the company is not sustainable or necessary.

And finally, workplace flexibility does not necessarily mean a lack of consequences. It’s important to remain principled, because laxity can be a double-edged sword, too.

Irregular application of rules can lead to favoritism, double standards and unfair treatment.

Instead of letting some off the hook on a whim, ask yourself why the hook exists in the first place, whether it’s an outdated dress code or an “overreaction” to one mistake. Strive to treat everyone equitably — that’s the whole point.

Flexibility is the future of team management

Don’t fear flexibility for your team, embrace it. A little bit of leeway can go a long way, and the most productive and high-performing teams have a healthy dose of trust and flexibility. Find ways to keep employees happy and in charge of their workloads, and watch your team thrive.