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The Flexible Working Arms Race: Mutually Assured Destruction or Fuel for Agility?

Bring your dog to work. Free season passes to the local ski resort. Unlimited holidays. Paid sabbaticals. Free gym memberships. Global working passports. Nap pods. An onsite petting zoo. Unlimited doughnut breaks. Free unicorn rides and in-office bungee jumping. The flexible working arms race is here – but it doesn’t have to lead to mutually assured destruction.

Over the past three years, I have spent most of my time working with senior executives to help them activate their strategies through organisation design. Over that time, we have seen the talent market heat up, along with a rapid increase in salaries and a rush to enhance employee value propositions with more flexible working options. This is a long-overdue correction. If the pandemic did one thing, it made many employees seriously consider what they want from work – and the principles Daniel Pink outlined in his 2009 book “Drive” still hold. Employees want autonomy, purpose and mastery. Flexible working is here to stay, and that is a good thing.

In response, there has been a steadily growing “flexible working arms race” – with some organisations offering increasingly ludicrous benefits and policies to “one-up” the competition and attract and retain scarce talent. Many policies formulated could be more sustainable and need to consider their impacts on overall organisation design, team cohesion and customer experience. Don’t get me wrong – I am a true believer in flexible working – however, the conversation needs to shift away from singularly being about EVP and move towards how organisations can harness flexible working practices for agility, innovation and customer intimacy.

While a few laggards still believe this is just a temporary state and are seeking a “return to normal”, – many are now thinking about redesigning their organisations to accommodate new ways of working. For these executives, it has become less about a return and more about a redesign. Flexible working is not the enemy; it could be the fuel you need to push your organisation towards more agile ways of working, decentralised decision making and enhanced collaboration among cross-functional teams.

Over the past few years, many organisations we have worked with adopted “remote first” flexible working policies out of necessity – resulting in a need to build infrastructure to support those decisions. Technology, HR policies and leadership approaches changed to support a largely remote workforce. Over time many organisations saw serendipitous benefits. I’ve heard countless stories of projects that would typically take months to implement, taking weeks due to increased collaboration and organisational agility. Innovative organisations have sought to galvanise those benefits. There has been a long overdue focus on EVP; however, in a kind of judo move, these organisations use flexible working as a catalyst to unsettle entrenched leadership and working practices, redesigning their organisations for future competitive needs.

So if you are still with me and are looking to harness the flexible working arms race to your advantage, here are three things you can consider;

Design for remote first – then season to taste.

Don’t freak out. I am not suggesting that a fully remote workforce is the right thing for every organisation. It is entirely impractical for many organisations and employees alike. As an executive rightly reminded me recently – not all businesses live in a knowledge work bubble – many have physical customer service locations. On top of that, humans need connection. I don’t know about you, but I don’t want to work at home alone with my cats forever.

I advocate for a different approach. Design your organisation for a remote first workforce. Why? Because it forces you to think carefully about all aspects of your people strategy and unshackles your leaders from traditional proximity-based command and control paradigms. Once your people processes, strategy and leaders are built for remote first, you will have ultimate flexibility in configuring your organisation – without being limited or restrained by your people and leadership practices. This is a huge competitive advantage: being able to configure remote, hybrid or onsite teams at will to meet changing market or competitive conditions. A “remote first” design approach gives you strategic flexibility – even when you choose to have office-based teams.

Experiment with minimum viable agility.

I’m not too fond of the term agile – it is clouded in baggage – however, for our purposes, there are ways of working that can be adopted from software development practices that benefit the whole organisation. Many executives use flexible working policies to experiment with the minimum viable agility (MVA) necessary to drive sustainable organisational transformation. This means analysing your current processes and ways of working to identify what agile practices would work best for you – and then experimenting with those on a small enough scale so that you can iterate quickly and learn from failure or success.

What practices could form an experiment? If I could only make one change to your team’s ways of working, it would be to inspect and adapt regularly. By this, I mean formally sit down as a team every two weeks and review what has gone well, what has not, and what you will do differently in the subsequent two weeks. When used well, this simple practice (often called a retrospective) can yield considerable improvements in the cohesion and performance of a team. Beyond that, I am a huge fan of teams visualising their work (using a tool like Trello or Microsoft Planner) and replacing long, useless meetings with a daily 15-minute team huddle that focuses on what is currently blocking the work of each team member. There are numerous ways of working to consider – the most important thing is to have an experimental mindset, start small and empower teams to adopt approaches that work for them.

Refresh your organisation design.

Flexible working has forced many executives to review their organisation structure – do we need a matrix, an extended team of teams or something else? The answer is yes for all of them at different times. It is essential, however, to consider how flexible working can unlock the ability for these structures to be flexible and agile. Organisations are living things and should be refreshed with new organisational design principles.

For example, allowing independent cross-functional teams that have the autonomy to manage their priorities whilst also being able to draw on resources from across the organisation when needed. This kind of flexible approach allows organisations to move exceptionally quickly – responding rapidly to customer preferences but still having the capacity to scale when required.

In addition, many organisations now need to reconsider their core organisational capabilities and if they are still relevant. This means potentially retiring capabilities and replacing them with new ones that enable more agility, such as flexible resourcing and upskilling, virtual leadership development, collaborative communication technologies and advanced analytics to measure flexible working performance.

To wrap up – we need to move beyond the flexible working EVP arms race and start making fundamental changes to the design and culture of our organisations. As leaders, this needs to begin with us. We must be ready to take risks and question our thinking on how we have historically designed and structured our organisations. The benefits to all stakeholders – employees, customers and shareholders – are worth the effort.


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