Leadership   //   November 17, 2022  ■  5 min read

Remote-first not remote-forced: figuring out flexible-working kinks

Flexible-working policies are still riddled with teething issues.

A study from software firm Unit4 revealed that there are big concerns when it comes to flexible working strategies. Of the 3,450 survey respondents across 12 global markets, 76% said that flexible working policies need improvement and 62% agree that the tools to support flexible working are not adequate.

The Unit4 survey found that 39% of organizations have seen people leave their business for more flexibility elsewhere over the past year, which just solidifies the need for companies to prioritize this.

“There is no placing the genie back in the bottle,” said Darren Murph, head of remote at Gitlab, “The way that work happens has changed forever, and new systems must be built to meet expectations of a workforce which demands flexibility and efficiency.”

Employee patience is waning, according to said Lisa-Moné Lamontagne, PsyD, SHRM-CP, people success leader at Unit4. “Companies who want to remain competitive will need to adopt strategic and intentional flexible work policies, and fast,” she added.

Only 18% of respondents say they experience a flexible working policy without restrictions. That means most policies are in fact just based on where an employee is located while they work – otherwise known as hybrid – and there prioritize (and favor) in-person over remote working. But many think that attitude will have consequences, still.

“Companies who are looking to hire and retain talent, but not removing restrictions around their flexible working policies, are not as appealing to talent as they think,” said Lamontagne. “It’s not enough for employers to tolerate flexible work – they must embrace it as a core value throughout the entire organization.”

Here are some of the ways flexible working policies can be improved:

Remote first, in-person second

Flexible working policies should focus on remote first, and in-person second, according to remote work expert Rowena Hennigan. “A lot of hybrid policies don’t give full flexibility with mandates of coming in [to the office] a couple times a week,” said Hennigan. “A whole organization redesign is needed for remote first.”

Murph recommends that organizations hire a head of remote or similarly titled individual to lead the process of going fully remote.

“To do remote work well, an organization must audit all of its operations — from culture to values to communication to workflows — and rearchitect every element,” said Murph. “This is a significant undertaking.”

However, the undertaking, which could take up to a year, means that a company is choosing to be remote-first, rather than remote-forced, said Murph. Companies like Cimpres, Atlassian, Meta, Cleveland Clinic, Upwork and more have all hired dedicated leaders to steward the new chapter of workplace design.

Let people make their own schedule

If a company wants to succeed today, experts say that they need to work out a solid flexible work policy, which would most likely include remote work and non-linear work, which is when people work during the time of day that is right for them. 

Not everyone will see success working 9 a.m. to 5 a.m. Some are early risers and are most motivated during the morning and perhaps 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. makes more sense for them. Others who have a spurt of energy at night might shift their hours to match that. 

A recent Future Forum survey found that 94% of employees want flexibility in when they work. 

“The only way employees can effectively create non-linear workdays is if their employer creates new workflows and ways of working that support this,” said Murph. “It’s easy to create a work-from-home policy; it requires deep intentionality to implement remote work at scale.” 

Hennigan warns that of course not every company will be able to do this if they have certain business and customer hours. “It depends if their role is customer facing or during core business hours,” said Hennigan. “Some departments will need to be there, but for many others you could bring in that flexibility. It can be done role to role.”

Hybrid work can create inequalities

Proximity bias, presenteeism, time zone bias are among the challenges that hybrid companies need to be mindful of.

“Once we move into the areas of inequality and bias, there is a whole other approach needed to prevent it,” said Hennigan. “There is cultural and behavioral change needed.”

It’s another reminder of why a head of remote is beneficial to make sure that these things are avoided and that there is a long-term transition policy in place if a company wants to make it work. If a company is subconsciously biased towards those who do come to the office, it will only create more challenges for both the employees and employers. 

Befriend time zones

Having people working at different times is not your enemy. An important part of making this work, though, is having the proper documentation for employees.

“Writing down a company’s culture, values, and workflows is the only way to scale knowledge across time zones when you don’t have an office as a crutch,” said Murph. “It’s imperative that organizations create systems which prioritize the speed of knowledge retrieval, not the speed of knowledge transfer.”

For example, Hennigan’s team consists of people in Colombia and Ethiopia, despite her being in Spain. 

“Everything is automated and online,” said Hennigan. “They can do their work within the infrastructure where they can access everything.”

Additionally, with asynchronous working, there are fewer live meetings, which some employees are feeling bogged down by

“As talent attraction and retention challenges continue to impact bottom lines, it will be crucial for organizations to build upon and strengthen their company culture to become a people-centric organization where people want to work,” said Lamontagne.