When I was called into a meeting with my boss in 2016 – at a job I was progressing in with a team I adored – I wasn’t prepared for their response to my request to work from home once a week. Having been diagnosed with an auto-immune disease when I was 18, flare-ups sometimes made it impossible for me to walk, and therefore to travel into the office, so I felt it made sense to ask for a small change to my working week. After all, I was good at my job and had a solid relationship with the senior team. But to my astonishment, I was fired.
The truth is that my illness and the simple ways it could be accommodated weren’t understood by my employers, so their gut reaction was to cut me out and save themselves the hassle. Sadly, I know that my experience is not an isolated case. Narrow, one-size-fits-all approaches to work that fail to accommodate different needs have plagued workplaces for far too long. The consequences of inflexibility are mass resignations, toxic company cultures and a staggering employment gap for people with additional needs or disabilities.
The pandemic has made people realise that there’s so much more to life than a 9 to 5. But despite the minority of companies insisting that employees return to the office full-time, it’s still too many. Many others are still enforcing a model of request processes, or mandatory times, days and working locations which are blanket-applied to the whole team. Yet it’s clear that companies get the best from their teams when employees feel trusted and empowered to exercise individual choice, and not when they’re being forced to all fit into the same framework.
In this regard, too many companies are failing to provide genuine flexibility for their teams. And that’s not good enough. To change this for the better, I believe that the process starts with employers critically assessing their working practices, understanding what genuine flexibility truly means, and having the honesty to acknowledge where improvement is needed.
Listening to the needs of employees is vital, as the people within any business are the most powerful assets a company can have. Looking to others for inspiration shouldn’t be feared or avoided, and there’s no shame in acknowledging you’re currently not doing enough. It’s what happens next that counts. The needs of employees have changed and flexibility at work is fast becoming an expectation. And as the pandemic has helped prove, gone are the days of assuming that anybody not working from an office isn’t really working at all.
I’d also recommend that companies, after listening to their employees, make a minimum commitment to flexibility. What I mean by this is that a company applies a base level of flexibility that can be accessed, without request, by anyone in the office. This could be as simple as core hours of 10-4, working from home two days per week, and the ability to take 28 days of holiday. Communicate this clearly, and iterate from there depending on how this performs with employees, and for the business.
After the traumatic end to my first job, my passion for wanting to level up genuine flexibility drove me to build Flexa: a platform which verifies and then showcases what flexible benefits different companies offer, creating a transparent way for people to look for a new job that suits their needs. Companies of all shapes and sizes have chosen Flexa to accredit the true extent of their flexibility, with hundreds of thousands of people using the platform to find roles which suit them. These companies are improving what they can offer prospective employees, and in doing so, they’re unlocking a new pool of talent that they would miss out on should they fail to embrace new ways of working. And we make sure to practice what we preach: at Flexa, our staff are able to work from anywhere in the world and work flexible hours.
This is because flexibility serves more than simply making staff more ‘comfortable’. Staff recognise that the future of work is about choice and adaptability and, without it, 41% of people would consider leaving their jobs. 81% of those people want better flexibility in their roles too, so it’s to be expected that the more flexible the employer, the more successful their businesses will be in the long term. Those who refuse to evolve will simply be left with a diminished pool of talented candidates to choose from.
Corporates have made tremendous progress in recent years towards becoming more inclusive. The gender balance for senior roles has been moving in the right direction and fairer methods of recruitment are helping companies attract more diverse teams. But flexibility is still seen as being somewhat of a luxury, and until this changes, large companies will continue to miss out on the best and brightest talent.
Across most developed countries, the ‘Great Resignation’ is causing swathes of employees that have grown tired of the status-quo to quit jobs that refuse to modernise. Ambitious employees have come to expect more than just a “competitive” salary and a fancy job title – it’s about the work balance and quality of life that’s attainable from the position on offer.
Some argue that flexibility is just for start-ups, or for those companies that were born during a time when remote working was mandated. But this is a cop out. A flexible approach is within every company’s reach, no matter the size. And the reality is that if corporates don’t step up and keep pace with our changing world of work, they’ll be left behind.