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This is what most companies get wrong about flexibility

Flexibility is one of the most important benefits people are looking for, but while many companies may have a policy on the books, they have no idea whether it’s the right policy, or who’s using it.

This is what most companies get wrong about flexibility
[Photo: DESIGNECOLOGIST/Unsplash]

When Agios Pharmaceuticals saw its workforce increase more than 450% in three years–from 90 to 500 employees–leaders feared the firm could end up with the kind of toxic culture that rears its ugly head in the aftermath of tremendous growth. The niceties that came with being small and nimble are hard to keep up with when the staff gets large or spans more than one office or location.

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As a result, we see companies offer incentives that don’t align with the values of the types of top talent they want to attract. Increasingly, one of the non-negotiables modern employees want is flexibility in how and where they work. In fact, many younger employees say they’d take a pay cut for work with flexible hours, and the likelihood they’d stay with a company is dependent on its flexibility programs.

“As we were thinking about rapid growth and expanding our culture, we thought, ‘How can we create a space for different experiences and flexibility needs?’ says Melissa McLaughlin, chief people officer at Agios, a biotech that develops therapies for cancer and rare diseases.

In order to identify the right flexibility options to meet the various needs within an organization’s microcultures, Agios teamed up with Werk, which uses its algorithm to customize policies based on a company’s flexibility gap score, or the disparity between employees’ needs and an organization’s current offerings.

“Companies are able to say from a blanket statement, ‘We have flexibility policy on the books,’ but they have no idea what impact that flexibility is having across the organization, whether it’s the right policy, or who’s using it,” Annie Dean, cofounder and co-CEO of Werk, says. “And they’re not spending any time training employees on how to use it.”

“Employees feel like they can’t access [flexibility] because leadership hasn’t bought in, or they’ve just never been taught how to use it,” Dean says.

Forget the 9-to-5 work schedule and a one-size-fits-all flexibility policy

As the 9-to-5 work schedule dwindles into extinction, a one-size-fits-all flex policy no longer makes sense, argues Dean, pointing out that the standardized workweek was created when work meant laboring in manufacturing plants. In today’s gig economy, flexibility is much more granular than part-time or offering remote working options.

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“The idea that all people should fit under a system doesn’t match the idea that the workforce is increasingly diverse,” she explains. “We don’t have any system in our lives where we can approach things from a one-size-fits-all model. We need our work days to be responsive to our needs. It’s obvious to everybody that we all work differently and have different strengths.”

Dean believes that the future workplace will see a shift “as transformative as the shift from the cable model to the streaming model. With people and workforce analytics, we are going to drive toward a much more customized employee experience,” she says.

What does a customized workday experience look like?

Dean, a former Wall Street attorney, and her cofounder and co-CEO Anna Auerbach, a Harvard Business School graduate with work experience at the intersection of business and impact, set out to answer this question shortly after they met in 2015.

After calling hundreds of companies to understand their approach to flexibility and individuals on how those approaches fit their needs, Dean and Auerbach created a framework comprised of six types of flexibility options, from Timeshift, which is where employees create unconventional schedules, to MicroAgility, which is the freedom to step away from work from one to three hours to take care of life’s surprises.

Werk initially started out in 2016 as a place to share what’s missing for women in the workplace before launching a job board for leadership-track salaried positions with pre-negotiated flexibility. From the job board’s data, Dean and Auerbach discovered the discrepancy in the types of flexibility talent said they needed, and what was being offered by companies. Next, Werk developed an assessment that uses a scientific methodology to identify the friction points in each employee’s life across an axis of caregiving, wellness, and productivity. Based on those friction points, the algorithm predicts the types of flexibilities that can help employees perform at their optimal levels. At the end of each assessment, which takes about 10 minutes to complete, individuals get their results much like they would with a personality test.

Using the assessments’ data, Werk is able to provide companies with a flexibility gap score and a breakdown of that gap by flex type and demographic (gender, generation, business units, teams, caregiving status, and seniority level). The data also points to where companies should be investing in flexibility to have the greatest impact in retention, burnout, and employee net promoter score.

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“It’s important to not see flexibility as extreme,” says Dean. “We’re not asking [companies] to boil the ocean. We’re just asking them to rewrite their flexibility policy.”

A new language for flexibility

Rewriting flexibility policies require a new, standardized language where employees can talk about flexibility without the bias that’s associated with it.

“The reality is, if [companies] look hard at [their flexibility offerings], they would discover that employees are not taking advantage of those policies because of fear, largely, because it’s not part of the culture,” says Dean. “Companies need to make investments to make flexibility part of the culture.”

Since the 1970s, when Kathleen Christensen, a social scientist and the pioneer in work-family research, invented the word flexibility to describe a type of work schedule, the concept has carried some heavy bias baggage as it suggests that companies offering flexibility have to bend over backwards to accommodate a few workers, namely working moms. But the data, says Dean, shows non-caregivers–particular millennial men–also suffer from a lack of access to flexibility options. For instance, an engineer who needs to work at home sometimes to be more productive or an introvert who really can’t stand the open office plan will go with their needs unmet because the current conversation is that they aren’t a part of the group that needs flex options.

“People want to believe that flexibility is not taboo, but the reality is, the language that employers and employees have access to today is overly emotional and incredibly personal,” says Dean. “You shouldn’t have to tell your manager that you’re pursuing [in vitro fertilization] treatments when you can just say, ‘I need to be micro-agile from 1 to 3 p.m. today.'”

According to Werk, the language that’s used in the office when discussing flexibility needs to center around productivity. It shouldn’t be a diversity or women’s issue, but rather, a productivity and well-being issue for everyone.

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“We should be unafraid to talk about how and when work gets done in the same way that we talk about what kind of work gets done,” says Dean.

At Agios, the new language has provided employees with a different way to talk about the nuances around how and where work gets done.

“It allows people to pay attention to how they work best, and what they need from a life standpoint to be their most productive,” McLaughlin tells Fast Company, and “[the new language] has expanded the flexibility conversation.”

In the coming months, Werk plans to launch technology that automatically updates work calendars to reflect the flexibility usage of employees in real time. For instance, in an agile work culture, workers can be in and out of the office so if they’re out for the day or a half-day, their calendar should reflect that to curb and eliminate managers’ anxiety.

Getting manager and leadership buy-in is essential for a customized flex culture to work on the ground. When international law firm O’Melveny & Myers LLP introduced Werk’s assessment tool to 600 lawyers in December 2018, the firm made sure to involve not only staff attorneys, counsels, and associates, but also its partners.

“It’s unusual for partners to be involved in this type of assessment because they can work however they like to work, but we thought it was important that they take the assessment as well because they have the same challenges,” says Mary Ellen Connerty, who leads diversity and inclusion at O’Melveny & Myers. “We didn’t want this to be an associates and counsel issue, but a shared issue and go under the bigger umbrella of well-being.”

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“Stress has become a big issue within the legal industry,” she explains, “so the idea that we can introduce this under well-being for our men and women is really important to us.”

Since working with Werk, Agios’s data shows an increased employee net promoter score of 38 points, and more than 70% of the 50 individuals in the pilot group has increased their use of flex. Agios plans to roll out Werk’s assessment to its entire staff of 500 in 2019.

“We’ve gotten lots of positive feedback as to what this signals to people about the company they work for,” says McLaughlin. “It was time for us to put our money where our mouth is.”

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About the author

Vivian Giang is a business writer of gender conversations, leadership, entrepreneurship, workplace psychology, and whatever else she finds interesting related to work and play. You can find her on Twitter at @vivian_giang.

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