We’ve all been there: The dreaded four-hour window waiting for the cable installer or the appliance technician. But while such appointments used to mean taking mornings off work, now it’s often nothing more than a minor inconvenience. Armed with a laptop and your smartphone, you can log in from your couch without skipping a beat. “Technology has been critical in having a more flexible work environment,” says Stefanie Spurlin, vice president of workplace solutions at Capital One. “It’s changed how work is done. You can still be available, and get things completed in a different setting.”
Indeed, technology has made it more possible for companies and their employees to reimagine the 9-to-5 workday. It’s helped usher in more flexibility, giving employees more latitude to decide when, where, and how they work, helping them integrate their work and their life in a more comfortable way. And in the current COVID-19 environment, it’s allowed companies to keep running full bore even after offices were shuttered and employees suddenly found themselves working remotely.
When COVID-19 recedes—and whether employees ever truly return to the office en masse—one thing is likely to stick: a desire for flexible schedules. The 2020 Capital One Work Environment Survey found that nearly 90% of workers say flexible scheduling is an important factor in considering a new job, and 86% say the pandemic has created a positive view of remote work. “The pandemic debunked the perception that if you aren’t seen, you aren’t working,” Spurlin says. “And work-life integration has been more supported which makes for a stronger employee experience.”
THE POWER OF CHOICE
Remote work offers employees more flexibility to tackle life chores during working hours. But working remotely isn’t the same as having a flexible schedule. In fact, just 30% of workers say their company has given them the option to work nontraditional hours during the pandemic.
More companies may want to consider giving employees more say over their work schedules. “When employees have a sense of choice and control over when, how, and where they do their work, it’s really valuable for their well-being, their excitement for the job, and their commitment to the company,” says Erin Kelly, a professor at MIT Sloan School of Management and co-director of the MIT Institute for Work and Employment Research.
Kelly’s latest book, Overload: How Good Jobs Went Bad and What We Can Do About It, draws on years of workplace research she conducted with co-author Phyllis Moen, director of the Life Course Center at the University of Minnesota. One key finding: Employees with more control over their work schedules were happier, healthier, and had a better work-life harmony. And there are benefits for the employer, too. “That sense of control on the part of employees signals the sense of trust and respect on the part of the employers,” Kelly says. “And the firm is likely to benefit from your sense of being valued and respected.”
A DELIBERATE APPROACH
Kelly and Moen’s research centered around a Fortune 500 firm. The pair split the company’s IT department in half, with one half undergoing a dramatic redesign to give employees more say in how they approached their workday. The redesign wasn’t unilateral: Teams were able to talk through their own strategies for flexible scheduling, from the norms they set for communicating to how they could make sure to stay on schedule for their clients. “That kind of deliberate work-design approach is about how to both maximize flexibility and operate in a functional way,” Kelly says.
Spurlin agrees that companies shouldn’t simply create a firm-wide flexible scheduling policy. Instead, companies need to figure out what will mesh with their existing culture. For instance, if management and executives aren’t likely to take advantage of a more flexible schedule, it’s unlikely that the rest of the firm’s workers will feel empowered to do so. “If you see the behavior modeled around you, then there’s more freedom to incorporate it into how you do your work,” she says.
Finally, the technology that has made flexible work so possible also presents a challenge: Unplugging from work is made all the more difficult when a smartphone is constantly tethered to email and instant message apps. “There’s a real risk of sliding into always-on availability,” Kelly says. “That’s unhealthy for workers. Time away from work is an important way to get re-energized and avoid burnout.”
The COVID-19 pandemic radically shifted expectations for how—and where—work can be done. Spurlin sees the success of flexible work as a springboard to get companies thinking about more creative ways to support their employees’ work-life harmony. “When people are able to seamlessly blend their professional and personal needs and transition between the workplace and remote work, it’s a win-win for them and their employers.”