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Here is yet another new term for employers: Radical flexibility. Most employers already recognize that the pre-COVID work models aren't working well now. They may not use the term radical flexibility, but they recognize they need new work models and organizational resilience and agility to successfully compete for and retain talent, remain competitive, and stay union-free. Radical flexibility is a new set of principles in which employee expectations about where, when, and how they work are met through flexible work schedules, shared purpose, and excellence in communication processes. It is a work model that strengthens employee engagement by empowering people to fit work into their lives instead of the other way around.
It's no coincidence that labor unions are attracting employees who haven't been typical union members – tech workers, university graduate student instructors, office workers, journalists – by offering camaraderie, caring, social change, respect, and an active voice, and by encouraging employees to stand up to employers on matters beyond compensation and benefits. The pandemic has led to a recognition that employees have different expectations about work and work schedules and the role employers should play in their lives. Applying radical flexibility principles is really the only way employers can meet the new challenges now and, in the future, because the new norm is disruption and change and an empowered labor force unwilling to settle for less in their employment than their expectations as to what work should deliver to their lives.
The pandemic drove some immediate employer adaptations, like allowing employees to work from home to keep operating and protect their health and safety. Notice the use of the word "allow." It implies a privilege is being granted. A funny thing happened on the way to the post-pandemic period. Employees stopped thinking of these kinds of accommodations as a privilege. They began to think of them as opportunities to balance work and home responsibilities, achieve independence in work scheduling, and demonstrate that meeting work goals is more important than counting work hours to reach those goals.
The change in employee expectations and the need to develop resilient and agile organizations have intersected in the principle of radical flexibility in which post-Covid offices and work are humanized. It's an employee empowerment principle in which employees take control of their work schedules and means of accomplishing work in order to fit work into their lives. The employer-employee relationship is forever changed. The days of employees showing up for work and exchanging effort for a set number of hours for a paycheck are rapidly disappearing, except in the lower-skilled jobs directly serving the public or production line-type jobs. But even those employees exercise newfound empowerment through changed expectations by asking for things like flexible work scheduling, more participation in decision-making, and more employer caring about their lives. These are all principles that labor unions use to attract workers at every skill level – professional and non-professional.
Gartner has been reimagining the future of work post-COVID, recognizing that employees are unwilling to return to the pre-COVID employee-employer relationship. Organizations that have recognized this transformation are embracing radical flexibility in which they give "employees control over where, when, and how much they work." Gartner points to a 2020 ReimagineHR Employee Survey of 5,000 employees from IQ20 that found 36 percent of employees working the traditional 40-hour workweek in the office were high performers. The employers who moved to radical flexibility saw an increase to 55 percent of employees becoming high performers. There are three elements of the new way of approaching leadership: radical flexibility to increase performance, developing shared purpose, and building deeper connections with employees.
It is all about humanizing the working relationship based on trust and flexibility, allowing employees to take large control of their work processes. They meet deadlines in their own way, work where they can best perform, and achieve work-life balance on their terms. In many ways, it's like treating employees as gig workers. They have assignments and deadlines, and it's up to them how they get the job done. Employees decide if they will work from home, work in the office, or even visit the office at will to refresh working relationships with coworkers and energize creative juices, and have face-to-face time with managers and supervisors. They operate on shared purpose and management's trust in them.
Of course, this isn't possible in all work settings. Workers in industries like hospitality and healthcare can't decide to work from home when they want to. But as mentioned, there are other ways to build flexibility into the working process, like four-day work shifts if that works best for the employee. That is on the "when they work" level. Developing a shared purpose and building deeper connections with employees is possible in every industry.
Radical flexibility has been in the making for two years, driven by the suddenly forced formation of a large hybrid workforce and people re-evaluating what is important to them. What is the purpose of their work? Employees were forced to work from home during the pandemic, and many were allowed flexible schedules. They discovered they liked the new work style. It was difficult for employers to maintain the command-and-control leadership style and to expect employees to maintain a traditional work schedule. This is especially true for women who bear most of the responsibility for family care and employees who are caregivers. When employers tried to return to the traditional work model and work schedules, they got pushback. Millions of people have quit their jobs because their employers forced them to fit their lives into work. These people make up some of the employees in the Great Resignation.
Continuing on the same path was not going to help recruit and retain employees in the Resignation Nation. RGP's CEO Kate Duchene says, "Success, however, ultimately comes down to the human element. People are looking for more than money in their employer-employee relationships right now. They're looking for a sense of purpose. They're looking for their employer to be a force for good in the community. Not only how we are treating our employees, but how we treat the rest of their family, especially in COVID when work has invaded home life."
Labor unions understood this during the pandemic, leveraging employee worries about their families' health and safety. They recognized that employees wanted more than job security and used their concerns and fears to promote unionization. They realized many employees wanted to work at home and needed more resources and better communication with management. They also recognized people's concerns about social justice and community impacts. All of this gave labor unions opportunities to get the attention of employees who may not have listened to them before – like professional workers.
We have previously talked about human-centered design, which foreshadowed the radical flexibility principle. In human-centered design, your organization looks for solutions by starting with the people you are designing for. Jennifer Orechwa, Business Development Consultant with IRI Consultants, wrote,
Human-centered design is the foundation of making design thinking work as an innovation model. Your organization starts with the people you are designing for when looking for solutions. It requires deep empathy to truly understand their needs and the solutions that will work best. Human-centered design is an employee engagement process in which managers start with first listening to identify employees' needs, interactions with others, and expectations and perspectives. They can also study new behaviors that have emerged in these tumultuous times. Leaders then develop work models that give employees a voice, participation in change and innovation teams, etc.
Emphasizing employee needs and expectations is at the heart of radical flexibility. Using human-centered design, you give employees what they expect – flexible work experiences, collaboration opportunities that fit their working model (in office, remote, hybrid, deskless, field workers), and emotionally intelligent leadership. Going forward, the hybrid workforce is here to stay, but it's important to understand that radical flexibility is not about permitting employees to work from home one or two days a week. Rather, it's about giving them opportunities.
Radical flexibility involves your leaders:
Schroders conducted employee surveys and, in August 2020, announced a permanent work-from-home scheme and flexible working conditions that were instituted permanently. This seemed particularly noteworthy because the company is a global asset management firm, so its brokers would be working all or partially at home. Flexible working is enabled where employee personal and role needs, team needs, and client needs overlap. A Flexible Working Charter was developed with ten core principles guiding working flexibility. It is a new social contract. Managers don't say, "you can work from home four days a week." It is entirely up to each employee to decide when they will work remotely but must be capable of being in the office when asked. There are regular face-to-face interactions also because they are essential to collaboration, innovation, and productivity.
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Gartner summarized Schroders' 10 principles of flexible working:
Trust, transparency, and communication are essential to radical flexibility.
How do you develop and embrace a radical flexibility culture and working scheme? Following are some of the steps any organization can take.
The radical flexibility work model relies on solid employee engagement because it needs a high level of trust between employees and management. It is also a model for inclusion and belonging because it enables people in various circumstances and geographies to join the workforce, promoting innovation. You become an employer of choice, enabling your organization to attract and retain top talent. People will recognize your ability to provide a quality employee experience that meets their expectations.
The bottom line is that taking the steps needed for radical flexibility to work are the same steps that can keep your organization union-free. The reason is simple: Becoming a human-centric organization makes joining a labor union unnecessary because your organization is fully meeting employee expectations. The bonus is that your organization is more agile, resilient, and adaptable no matter what disruption occurs in the future business environment.
Walter is IRI's Director of Digital Solutions and founder of UnionProof & A Better Leader. As the creator of Union Proof Certification, Walter provides expert advice, highly effective employee communication resources and ongoing learning opportunities for Human Resources and Labor Relations professionals.