As government guidance on work from home was lifted, the internet was buzzing with firms sharing on what their policies were, all keen to outdo one another on who had better policies and "benefits". Despite LinkedIn articles being posted by the thousands on the subject, the internet was clearly divided.
Some appeared to be neutral, some were deeply unhappy, and some were just keen to regain that sense of normality. Those who were deeply unhappy, however, had to tread carefully to ensure their bosses don't see their unhappiness over being dragged back into the office for fear of being fired.
One person in particular who kept popping up on my feed was Molly Johnson-Jones, co-founder and CEO of flexible careers specialists, Flexa. Molly was completely truthful and wasn't afraid to tell her story. That to me, was key. She said it as it was, and she was absolutely brilliant.
I knew immediately that the CIO community had to hear Molly's story.
The birth of Flexa
From the age of 18, I’ve lived with an autoimmune disease – one which causes a variety of symptoms including pain that can stop me from walking. This regularly made it impossible for me to travel into the office, so I asked my old employer (I worked in investment banking) if I could work from home one day a week. A reasonable request, you might think.
Ten days later I was sacked.
After this experience, I spent a lot of time trying to find employers who would be more accommodating of my need for flexibility - a surprisingly difficult task. It was my partner (now also my business partner) Maurice who first had the idea for Flexa. He’d been lucky enough to work for a really flexible employer and, although ready to move on to a new challenge, also couldn’t find a company offering similar benefits. We’d both seen how difficult it is for job seekers to access transparent information about the flexibility a role will offer. That was the lightbulb moment that sparked the idea for Flexa - a talent attraction platform which vets and verifies companies’ flexible working policies, creating transparency for job seekers. It quickly gained momentum and soon became my full-time job working alongside Maurice and Tim, our third co-founder and CTO.
Smoke and mirrors
Companies often allude to ‘flexibility’ on job adverts, but it’s often only when staff join that they find out exactly what that entails and what the limitations are. Staff need - and deserve - to know specific details upfront about flexible working.
Equally, employers might make vague promises about new flexible working benefits to appease existing staff; many of whom have grown used to working remotely and better work-life balance during lockdowns. But if senior staff are heading back into offices every day and staff feel pressure to follow suit, or if home working in fact becomes limited to one day a week, their offers of flexibility is fake news.
That’s not to say that all companies must now be remote first. Flexibility is a sliding scale, and it’s important that companies find what works best for them and their staff. Some structure is a good thing. And for some, having everyone in the office one day a week is both necessary and positive for overall culture and staff wellbeing.
Trust is key
The pandemic has more than proven that working from home works. Lockdowns debunked old myths that employees are less productive outside of offices. Additionally, trials of four day working weeks are showing how usual Monday to Friday routines don’t necessarily make for the most engaged and efficient workforce. Employers must start trusting the evidence, and trusting their staff. Individuals know best which days, hours and environments enable them to do their best work. It’s time we empowered them to choose ways of working based on that knowledge, and let them get on with it.
The future of work
54% of workers plan to leave their jobs if they're not offered flexibility post-pandemic, showing how much staff have come to value the freedoms they’ve gained over the past couple of years. Flexibility might have started out as a lockdown experiment, but it’s here to stay. And if companies want their staff to stay, they must start thinking beyond government-mandated working from home.
Moving away from a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, the future of flexible work is about offering staff a "pick and mix" of working environments and supplementary benefits: from enhanced parental leave policies and dog-friendly offices, to work-from-anywhere contracts. The things that matter most to staff have changed, and paying attention to individuals’ priorities is the key to attracting and retaining talent who are happy, engaged and able to do their jobs well.
Changing the narrative
The pandemic has been a trigger for staff to reassess their jobs and what they want from them. For many of those who’ve handed in their notice over the last year, the impetus has been a desire for more flexibility and better work-life balance. And, since record levels of vacancies mean that it’s a job seekers’ market, all this is now within employees’ reach. The power is in their hands to seize new opportunities which accommodate their flexible working preferences.
Redefining flexible working
Truly flexible environments organically attract more diverse workforces. Flexitime allows mothers to fit work around childcare, remote work connects talent outside the capital to city jobs, and cultures which are inclusive of home working help disabled staff feel welcome. Employers know this. So the risk is that they’re more focused on attracting diverse talent than they are on following through with offers of flexibility.
Paying lip service to flexible working isn’t good enough. Nor is making staff ask for it, or making them feel uncomfortable when they do. Flexible work isn’t flexible if it’s considered a ‘perk’, or if it’s only offered to certain staff or in line with tenure. Genuine flexibility is about empowering staff to choose how, when and where they work.