For the past two years, weekly if not daily, we have seen headlines about companies weighing in on the polarizing topic of workplace flexibility.
In June, Elon Musk announced his employees at Tesla had to return to the office. The “Twittersphere” erupted with debates and studies on working from home versus being mandated back to an office.
Recently Tim Cook, CEO of Apple, announced his return-to-office mandate — which was met with scrutiny, an online upheaval, and petitions by his employees to stop the return. Theunis Bates, editor at LinkedIn News, wrote in a LinkedIn article that “Apple faces an RTO rebellion.”
It’s fascinating to see this play out. But while the debate of work from home versus return to the office rages on, there is something missing…
All the pundits tout “workplace flexibility” but somehow equate it exclusively to the ability to work from home or return to the office. One or the other. Nothing in between.
The definition of workplace flexibility, according to Alison Doyle, renowned career and job search expert, emphasizes the willingness and ability to adapt to change, particularly regarding how and when work gets done. In a flexible workplace, the needs of both employee and employer are met.
Was there any mention of work from home or return to the office in that definition?
Trades Left Out of the Conversation
What is missing in the articles and conversations mentioned above is flexibility for those who work in positions for industries like the service industry or for essential businesses. These types of companies can’t make a blanket statement about all staff being able to work from home. It appears that this entire segment of the workforce — those who continued to work during the pandemic either onsite or out in the field — have been left out of the conversation.
What about technicians in the field servicing customers? What about project managers working with customers in the customers’ homes? How about those who pick up and deliver supplies to customers? These roles aren’t mentioned.
To bring the conversation full circle, the aforementioned pundits don’t address the fact that neither the actual Apple products nor Tesla automobiles can be assembled from home.
What does workplace flexibility look like for employees and organizations with positions that can’t be done remotely? When talking about this topic with some of my clients, they can’t see that there is a path for these types of positions to have any flexibility whatsoever. I’ve been challenging this by asking them to think outside of the box. If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that we need to get serious about considering alternative solutions. We can no longer rest on what we’ve always done or how we’ve always done it.
Keep Employees by Considering Their Needs
The harsh reality is that those who work in our industries can and are being recruited away into positions that are better able to offer flexibility, while the practical application of our industry, by its very definition, prohibits us from doing so in a traditional sense.
In my consulting role, I look at employees’ weekly production hours. If they are working too many hours, too much overtime, is it efficient and profitable? As consultants we see trends in how many hours employees are working. This can indicate things like potential burnout or the need for more labor. One frequent conversation that comes from reviewing this information is when I see hourly staff working 46, 47, 49 hours per week. This consistent trend leads me to ask, “Are the employees happy with that much overtime?” Many times the answer is yes, they love the extra money. However, what often comes next is turnover in those roles because employees eventually get burned out and tired of working so many hours each week. This is just one example of where flexibility could help.
Being mindful of the various challenges faced by service industries, while still contemplating the issue of flexibility despite needing to get jobs done ASAP — time of day or consideration of hours worked be damned — here are a few thoughts on where I see opportunities to look at flexibility in different ways:
Ask your staff for ideas on how they could accomplish their job while having more flexibility. Clearly, working from home isn’t an option for everyone, but discussing what is important to them and soliciting ideas you could put into action will gain their buy-in. The goal is to have your team present ideas that are easy to implement or something you hadn’t thought of. Those who do the job every day typically have ideas that we may not have considered.
A caution here is that if you open up the floor for flexibility ideas, you need to address each idea, whether it’s something you can accommodate or not. Even if something small comes from the feedback, implement it if you can, but also don’t be afraid to address those suggestions that you can’t accommodate.
Employees indicate that communication is typically the #1 issue in the workplace, so communicate why you’re asking for feedback and then what you can implement and what you can’t. Present the information in logical fashion after careful consideration and even use internal focus groups to work through the feasibility of the ideas.
According to TeamStage.io, the gig economy is expanding 10 times faster than the total U.S. workforce, with 36% or 57.3 million workers currently in the gig economy in some capacity. Their studies show there is a desire for more flexibility and that gig workers like working for more than one company. 29% of all gig workers in the U.S. have their alternative job as their primary job. With this in mind, consider hiring for a 25- or 30-hours per week position instead of the standard 40 or 40+ hours. It’s possible you might get more applicants. This may be attractive to the gig worker or to a variety of people who want to work but have other commitments (children, aging parents, health needs, etc.) and they need flexibility for an hour or so a day. This may require you to hire two employees at 25 hours per week instead of one working 40+, but the candidate pool is now wider, and you may be satisfying a need that’s quickly becoming more prevalent in the market.
Consider the “9/80” work schedule or some variation of it. This is where employees typically work 4 nine-hour days and 1 eight-hour day, followed the next week by 4 nine-hour days and a day off on the fifth day. This cycle repeats every two weeks. This could also be a variety of “4-10s”, having employees work four 10-hour days with a day off during the week. You could rotate the days off by each person in the department. Those who may want to work more hours could then be eligible for overtime on their fifth day. In all these scenarios you need to remain compliant with overtime regulations, but often the cost of a few hours of overtime one week is offset by the lower number of hours worked the following week. The feedback I’ve consistently heard is that employees don’t mind giving an extra hour each day (and may be doing this anyway), but knowing they have a scheduled day off every week or two weeks is very appealing. They can plan an extra-long weekend or a break in the middle of the week to rest/recharge and take care of personal obligations. Perhaps even consider 3 twelves. Would those employees who regularly work a 12-hour day due to the demands of the industry welcome the structure of a defined three-day workweek in exchange for a four-day weekend?
According to Zippia, the average age of restoration technicians is now 45. Service industry roles such as this can be physically demanding and may take a toll on workers who do the job day after day. The feedback I’ve received from interviewing those being introduced to these industries is that they don’t want to consider this type of physically demanding work, and workers who are older may have trouble performing it in their later years.
Have we thought of cross training those roles with other less physically demanding jobs in the company for a couple days a week? This may help strike a balance between always being in the field and always being in the office. Maybe there are project managers in the office who may want a day or two in the field each week to keep their skills sharp and interact with customers directly. And while a hybrid role may not be for every worker, it’s something that should be discussed and considered during development conversations with employees. Having employees crossed trained in dual roles across a variety of functions could provide immense benefits to an organization as long as the scheduling could be controlled and consistent.
Consider a flextime option. What if you offered employees the ability to pick or alter their scheduled start/stop times? For example, each employee could set their schedule with a deferral from the company’s posted start time by one or two hours. If the company has normal office/working hours (and phone or office coverage needed) from 8 am to 5 pm every day, you could offer the following schedules: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m., 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., and 9 am to 6 pm — essentially offering employees the ability to alter their schedule by one to two hours. These could be options in a rotation by department, so there is adequate business coverage.
In a service business where you must schedule work and field jobs each day, you could also consider the schedule of those who will be performing the work. This requires time and training for someone to manage the schedules, but employees would feel the flexibility to not be tied to the same schedule all the time. Even if they don’t use the flexible option and work the standard 8 am to 5 pm, they know they have the option should they need it. Even greater flexibility might be to allow employees to change their schedule weekly or monthly. The goal here is if someone has doctor appointments, a summer childcare camp schedule, or other personal commitments from time to time, the schedule allows them to handle these situations. Offering the weekly or monthly change option allows for more ease in company scheduling to ensure the needs of clients and customers are handled adequately.
With the goal of this discussion being to assess flexible options in the workplace, consideration should be given to attracting and retaining employees in other ways as well. For those companies that offer benefits to their employees, perhaps even broadcast as a part of your culture that you care so much about the mental and physical well-being of your employees that even if they only work three 12-hour days or a reduced schedule, they will still be considered fully eligible for company-paid benefits. (Most health insurance carriers only require employees to work 30 hours per week to be eligible for health insurance.) Other insurance products including employee assistance programs, mental health services, retirement options, etc. can be offered to all employees. You could be the employer who stands out by offering benefits to a section of the population who wouldn’t traditionally be eligible for them.
Obviously, these are just talking points to get the conversation going, and what works for one company may not for another, but in our changing environment it is necessary for leaders to consider all options in order to remain a relevant and attractive industry for employment.
Flexibility doesn’t need to mean only working from home. There are many other options that can be considered. Creating and allowing flexibility in the workplace creates loyalty, employee retention, and helps recruit those who may not have previously been an option.
I don’t know the best answer for your organization, but other articles don’t even talk about flexibility in the terms mentioned above. We must consider alternatives if we’re going to stay relevant in our changing workplace environment.