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What flexibility really looks like in the future of work

Cockroach Labs chief people officer stresses that we can design the future right now through experimenting with different options so employees feel in control of the experience.

What flexibility really looks like in the future of work
[Photo: SolStock/Getty Images]

We are in a unique moment in history. Everything we thought we knew about work, the office, and the importance of in-person coworking was flipped on its head. We now have the opportunity to shape what the future of work looks like.  

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Leaders should relish this moment, taking the time to research and design new experiences, just like our tech or product colleagues do. They should apply what they have learned over the last two years and focus on the path forward. The flashy perks (free snacks, yoga classes, ping-pong) that once attracted and retained talent simply won’t work anymore.  

So what comes next?  

The future of work requires some experimentation. There will be trial and error along the way, so leaders should be prepared for a bumpy period. What we do know is that throughout the last two years of the pandemic, employees have placed a higher value on flexibility and the ability to design their own experience in a remote setting. If you’re looking for some inspiration, here are some of the experiments and research and design strategies my team and I will implement over the next few months. 

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Slowly but surely increase capacity

The pandemic challenged assumptions about the purpose of an office for employees, beyond just a place to work independently and take calls. For example, younger employees and certain departments may benefit from face-to-face time as they learn through observation, in-person meetings with mentors and conducting themselves professionally in an office environment for the first time. On the other hand, some employees are caregivers or have long commutes and might thrive better in a hybrid model or a fully remote model.  

One way to test the use of your office space is to increase office capacity incrementally. Over the past months, we have increased office capacity from 20% occupancy with assigned desks to 50% occupancy with employees reserving desks as needed. We are excited to increase our office capacity to 70%+ occupancy over the next month. The model has benefited our employees by giving them time to adjust back into an office environment after working remotely for an extended period of time.  

We’re also considering how employees can engage with the hybrid model in a meaningful way. What we found is that it’s the small things that matter most.  

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Very few of us know for sure how we’re going to get into the rhythm of taking hybrid meetings (some people in a conference room, some on the phone from our desk, or in a phone booth), let alone how we’ll feel in a completely full office again. To help people feel a little more comfortable designing their experience, we’ve made little changes like referring to meeting rooms as spaces for “collaboration” to underline and clearly define the purpose of in-office days.  

Emphasize personal preference and responsibility

Every employee has different needs and preferences, both in and outside of work. That sounds obvious, but it’s the most important thing to keep in mind when designing an approach to returning to the office. Employees also need options in order to feel like they are in control of their experience.   

One way to do this is to allow employees to self-select their in-office commitment. At Cockroach Labs, we call these selections “workplace classifications” but your organization could try “models,” “ways of working,” “groups,” etc. It gives our team the option to use the office in a way that works best for them.  

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We’re offering three choices: fully in-office (main lab), hybrid (mixing labs), or fully remote (nodes), that employees can choose from based on their unique needs and professional growth. They select their in-office commitment, which empowers them to personalize their experience while also committing to a structure.  

Through the decision-making process, encourage employees to consider their individual job descriptions, as well as their communication styles. Does their role often require more collaboration vs. independent work? Is there a certain piece of software or equipment that’s available to them in the office? These are important considerations that allow them to choose their working model based on their personality traits and preferences, as well as what will help them be most productive and successful in their role.  

Invest in everyone

We’re going to take this one step further by tailoring financial benefits to these classifications. For example, employees who are fully in the office have dedicated desks and have access to a meal plan, while fully remote employees may receive a stipend to outfit their home office environment and a travel budget to be used once a quarter to visit an office.  

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The goal here is to make sure every employee, regardless of being in-the-office or remote, has a valuable experience and feels productive in their environment. This further emphasizes that you are in full support of each employee’s choice and are invested in their success. 

There is so much that we can’t control about the future. And I can’t stress this enough: Nobody knows what they’re doing. We are in completely uncharted waters. But not knowing is exciting. It means we can define the future. We can find out what works, give our employees options so they feel in control of the experience, and design this new world together.  


Lindsay Grenawalt is the chief people officer at Cockroach Labs.

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