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Workplace flexibility—will the current public health crisis encourage change to organisational culture?

Natalie Runyon

08 Apr 2020

REUTERS/Radu Sigheti

Many organisations had workplace flexibility policies, but with some organisations there was a disconnect between the policy and how accepting the organisational culture was of the practice.

Up until a few weeks ago, it was not uncommon for lawyers to understand the unwritten norm of being present in the office was required for good work performance and for career advancement. Indeed, for many early career lawyers, the reality ingrained in them is that to get ahead, you must arrive before your manager in the morning and leave after your manager goes home.

Yet, we have been hearing regularly for the last decade about the benefits of flexible work. Indeed, the Society on Human Resource Management predicted “telecommuting was the way of the future” in their report, ‘Workplace Flexibility in the 21st Century, published in 2008’; and research from 30 years, ‘The Impact of Flexible Scheduling on Employee Attendance and Turnover’, ago also noted the benefits of flexible hours on employee attrition.

Flexible work typically has been framed as a working mum or Generation-Y issue. Female lawyers who pursued working from home or a modified work schedule were assumed to no longer be ambitious or serious about upward mobility for their career. At the same time, some organisations normalised flexible work policies because of the push from Millennials, but the practice in many workplaces continued to have a stigma.

Despite the mandates of shutting down non-essential workplaces for weeks at a time, the current pandemic crisis has a small silver lining—the ability for millions of workers of all ages and backgrounds across the globe to experience the benefits of working flexibly and remotely. Only now the proponents of the presentism mindset are experiencing the benefits of flexible and remote working.

Could COVID-19 be the trigger to institutionalise flexible and remote work and be truly accepted in organisations where there has been an unwritten norm that penalised lawyers who used it?

Permanency of the ‘new normal’

Seemingly overnight, COVID-19 has shifted working patterns for millions of people, and many organisations are expecting it to transform how their employees work permanently. Millions of individuals will get to experience multiple days in a row of working without commuting long distances, and the benefit of being close to home to look after the children or when a family member is sick. Moreover, employees may not want to return to the office once the mandates are lifted. The chance for many to reset their expectations in terms of how they work on such a large scale is unprecedented.

In fact, several leaders have made big predictions. Paul Miller, the CEO and co-founder of the Digital Workplace Group, states that he thinks there is a “consensus that this a fundamental shift in how work gets done”. Describing it as the “new normal” versus “returning to normal”, Miller notes the incomplete picture of what the “new normal” will look like, but he is 100 percent sure that how work gets done now won’t be the same as it was before.

Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic, which owns WordPress and Tumbler, was quoted recently in an article in the Guardian, indicating that “COVID-19 could cause [a] permanent shift towards home working”, adding the situation presents the opportunity for many organisations to build a culture that allows for “long-overdue work flexibility”.

Workplace cultures put to the test

To succeed in the new normal, organisations will need to foster team collaboration and support. At the same time, the ability of executives and managers to adapt quickly probably has never been more critical at any time in the last decade. Certainly, there is a huge need for every worker to deploy all five senses of tuning in to our individual and collective humanity. More specifically, this could include:

Testing the resiliency of the organisational culture: The potentially extended nature of this crisis will determine the strength of company culture. The need for empathy and understanding on a massive scale will indeed be required, along with the likely extended period of working remotely, dealing with feelings of isolation, and the fear of contracting COVID-19. “The onus will be on leadership and people managers to take measures to support employees thrust into working in a way many wouldn’t choose”, say Miller.

Indeed, many workers are forced to adapt to a complex situation on top of having their work situations upended. For example, many parents who have office jobs, and young children, are taking on a greater role in their children’s learning because of school closures—and must balance this with the responsibility of working productively. Still, there are others who have ill or aged loved ones, that they cannot visit in the hospital, or travel long distances to take care of because of the ‘shelter in place’ mandates or are symptomatic and must quarantine.

Managers acting as catalysts for employee support: With large swaths of workers dealing with a combination of the various situations for multiple weeks, managers and supervisors need to acknowledge that listening to these employees is a key component of the glue that can keep the company’s culture together. Revealing their own struggles and showing their own humanity can go a long way in making direct reports feel comfortable in letting their own guard down.

Checking in one-on-one with each employee and demonstrating a softer leadership style are also critically important during extended periods of stress and in an environment where drastic changes have occurred, especially in how work is getting done.

Employees needing to stay connected to peers: Individual contributors also need to proactively reach out and stay connected with peers and colleagues. The human side of remote work is more important than ever, and deeper understanding of what one another are going through enhances relationships. It is also a great tool for continuing to keep internal and external connections warm and for advancing one’s own career.

When this crisis inevitably passes, the ‘new normal’ will be different in every organisation, but one thing that is very likely to remain for many is that some form of workplace flexibility will be normalised within organisational cultures.


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