The Changing Landscape of Work and the Worker

When workplace flexibility first came to be during the 1970s in the United States, it was mostly known as "flex time": adjusting one's start and end times to primarily accommodate working parents dropping children off and picking them up from school or daycare.
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When workplace flexibility first came to be during the 1970s in the United States, it was mostly known as "flex time": adjusting one's start and end times to primarily accommodate working parents dropping children off and picking them up from school or daycare. Other forms of workplace flexibility were introduced in the early 1980s including compressed workweeks and telework (or telecommuting, if that resonates better).

Today, not only is there a wider variety of workplace flexibility arrangements (thanks to the ingenuity of many forward-thinking individuals), there's also a growing movement to get the culture of the organization to become more flexible overall. When an organization embraces flexibility as part of its cultural norm, funny things begin happening.

First, the organization's focus begins shifting to the work itself rather than on the worker and where he or she is getting the work done. WorldatWork's 2015 Trends in Workplace Flexibility Survey found that for those organizations with a more flexible culture, more than three-quarters of respondents' workforces would say there is a positive or extremely positive effect on employee engagement (85%), motivation (73%) and satisfaction (91%). This has been true year over year since we started asking about this back in 2011.

Next, more organizations are starting to address the whole idea of "working anywhere, anytime." To some, this may conjure images of someone sitting at the beach, laptop in hand, working on his or her next deadline. (By the way, when this image came to mind, were you picturing a younger worker? That's what some researchers say "they" want." Honestly, this baby boomer wouldn't mind that once in a while herself!) With technology as it is today, this can be a very doable situation - although someone will have to come up with a clever way for us to avoid sand in our keyboards!

And while the conversation is progressing, many organizations still have issues with the "optics" in the office, face time and the ability to hone in on productivity versus "butts in seats." Our survey also showed that many organizations fail to train managers on flexibility - another component that can lend itself to creating that flexible culture. Don't look at training as only a means to learn the policy and how to enforce it; rather, make it an opportunity to understand the business strategy behind it - not only in terms of attraction and retention, but in productivity and engagement as well. Because remember: It's about the work more than the worker and about the productivity more than the setting.

Now, let's turn this on its head a little bit and consider this, which is also gaining speed in this ever evolving future of work scenario: Working anywhere, anytime could also mean being in the same building with co-workers (or as I grew up knowing it as "going to work").

Imagine another image of someone sitting comfortably on a sofa, laptop in hand while listening to classical music. And this is just one area that's designed to cater to the quiet, relaxed atmosphere that brings out the innovation and creatively desired by that particular company. There could also be an area with a line of treadmill desks where workers can easily accomplish their work while getting healthy while they work. Or a room set up like a coffee house where the atmosphere is spirited and lively and ideas are bouncing off the wall.

This concept, as described in a recent podcast at The Future Organization, is dubbed "homing from work," or creating an environment that has that same sense of comfort, protection and support as a domestic environment. Accomplishing this in the corporate environment is where leading organizations are succeeding. What is helping them be so far ahead, besides their unique designs is having an infrastructure that supports high videoconferencing, encouraging workers to relax and taking a break and to encourage informal unplanned meetings.

Are these scenarios the same or different? Your answer may be very telling of the culture of flexibility your organization is comfortable with. Let's talk about several things that are important to the employer
  • An agreed-upon level of attraction and retention (because some is healthy - right?)
  • A desire for innovation and creativity as well as profitability for those for-profit organizations or in how well your organization serves those in need or how well it advances the causes it champions for non-profits
  • A collaborative workforce that has been enabled both culturally as well as technically to work in a way that accomplishes the strategic goals the organization is looking for.

Let's be honest: Does it really matter where the genius happens? As long as it DOES and it's for YOUR organization? Perhaps HR, facilities management and senior management needs to discuss this - either on the beach, the quiet room where the sofa is or the coffee house setting where ideas are running rampant. If you aren't, believe me someone is. And the employees who DO the work will be looking for those opportunities.

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