skip to main content
Amid COVID-19, Let's Rethink Workplace Flexibility

Amid COVID-19, Let's Rethink Workplace Flexibility

by Shannon Mullen O'Keefe

Story Highlights

  • The coronavirus has exposed new fault lines in the workplace
  • Consider how to better accommodate employees' whole lives
  • Increasing flexibility will increase employee satisfaction and productivity

Here's the deal: There are always problems to be solved.

The pandemic underscored this on a dreadful scale. It quickly exposed fault lines for teams that weren't previously apparent -- with a gigantic highlighter pen. In other cases, it created new fault lines.

Whatever the case, the future is standing right in front of everyone, and even as leaders take charge of the problems they face now, they can begin to rethink how things can be even better.

They can do this by anticipating what's next to ensure managers "don't skip a beat" as they work to continue to engage their teams.

So, what's next?

Before the crisis, employees were already demanding a new focus on life.

Workplaces faced constant change before the pandemic -- and there's more to come. But one thing won't change: human nature -- it doesn't ever change that much. Gallup research shows that, before all of this, people were already demanding a renewed focus on their life anyway.

Their specific ask? That work not be just a job -- but that their employers consider their whole life.

In fact, many are literally asking questions about this issue already. In a recent Economist interview, Kristalina Georgieva, managing director of the International Monetary Fund, was asked by a reporter whether the bank would "loosen up" after all of this. In reply, she opined about some of the things she envisions could change in the future, such as more online connections and less global travel, and more flexibility in dress codes --"no jeans in the boardroom" rules change quickly when board meetings shift to joining a Zoom meeting from home.

Just as Georgieva was asked to imagine what might change, leaders can explore that idea now, too. There are some obvious things to anticipate now, like that question of workplace flexibility.

Leaders should take this opportunity to address workers' needs for flexibility that are now surfacing -- and consider how better to accommodate their lives.

3 Opportunities for Leaders to Create More Flexibility

Flexibility will look different in each workplace because culture is as unique to an organization as DNA is to a person. It's up to leaders to identify and brand the pattern of flexibility that works for their employees and their business needs. Leaders should consider the following types of flexibility that many employees are beginning to seek:

1. Flexibility in work schedule.

Certain jobs require employees to be physically present. However, there is an opportunity for leaders everywhere to examine policies to determine if they can better incorporate flexibility overall. When working mothers were asked how well their employers met their needs to change their schedule when needed, nearly four in 10 (38%) couldn't say "very well."

Addressing this problem will not only meet employees' needs but also attract a diverse pool of top talent. Female job seekers are just one example: 60% rated a greater work-life balance and better personal wellbeing as a "very important" attribute in a new job.

Flexibility will look different in each workplace because culture is as unique to an organization as DNA is to a person.

2. Flexibility in work location.

Leaders should prepare now to be asked whether their workforce can continue working from home when public health restrictions are no longer necessary.

A Gallup article published in early April indicated a shift already as, "three in five U.S. workers who have been doing their jobs from home during the coronavirus pandemic would prefer to continue to work remotely as much as possible." And from the same Gallup Panel survey at that time, 41% said they would prefer to return to their workplace or office to work, as they did before the crisis.

Long before this crisis, Gallup's Women in America: Work and Life Well-Lived report pointed out that, among employed women with children, 33% rated their workplaces "very poorly" when asked about "allowing you to work from home when needed."

Flexibility shouldn't change performance goals, but in addition to the "when," leaders should consider if the "where" for workers can change, too. Full-time remote work isn't the only solution. Leaders should reimagine what work lives can look like for their teams and ask themselves if employees could work from home more frequently if some desire to do so.

To support leaders, team managers can ask their teams how they can partner together for this effort to be successful. For some teams, this may mean different shifts of people need to be in the office at different times, or they trade off week-by-week, individual-by-individual.

For other teams, this may mean they primarily follow a work-from-home setup -- but with a regular in-person connect each week. And for other teams still, working from home may not be possible. The point is to consider what is possible as you also strive to ensure the best employee experience for your teams.

3. Flexibility to dress for the day.

Jeans in the boardroom may not be appropriate for your work culture. But leaders should consider the who, what, when, where and why relative to casual work attire that may be appropriate for their teams. In just the same way that one's workspace, or having an appropriate physical environment, is a psychological necessity for getting work done -- please note, a supportive work environment should give employees the freedom to work in the ways they feel are best for them, with spaces to collaborate or work privately, depending on the task at hand -- there is also an opportunity to consider things like your dress code. At a minimum, things like your dress code shouldn't get in the way of engaging teams, when they don't need to.

So, consider: Are there certain teams within your culture that more casual work attire makes sense for? Even in this case, there may still be a need for "business attire" days when clients are in town or for certain celebrations. The "where" a team is matters, too. Policies like this can be flexible, too. For example, when hosting clients, business dress is a "yes," when working with teammates every day it's a "no."

For still other cultures, formal attire may make sense. The point is to ensure that you are creating an employee experience that is engaging and productive.

This, by the way, is not an exhaustive list of ways to enhance workplace flexibility, it's just a start.

In the end, now is an opportunity to consider how you can be flexible within the range of variables that exist for your teams. When you consider how to increase flexibility in your work culture now, your employees (who are yearning for it) will be grateful that you did.

Ultimately, keep in mind performance outcomes, employee wellbeing and your employment brand as you make final decisions about what's right for you and your teams.

But also, make sure that "the way you've always done things" isn't holding you back from "the way you could do things" in the future -- especially if it could be even better.

Now is the time to turn the problems that have surfaced into opportunities and rethink how things can be even better in the future.

Gallup can help you create a flexible culture to anticipate and better solve new workplace problems:

Gallup World Headquarters, 901 F Street, Washington, D.C., 20001, U.S.A
+1 202.715.3030