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Beyond remote work: Rethinking workplace flexibility for greater employee engagement

Workplace flexibility has received a lot of attention since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and leveraging flexibility is one of the top employee engagement trends in 2023. Workplace flexibility has become synonymous with remote working—but research shows that’s not the whole story.

Workplace flexibility is all-encompassing, including flexible arrangements in the “what, where, when and how” employees work. The most cited themes of flexibility reported by employees in their own words include:

  • Adaptability

  • Performance focus

  • Autonomy

  • Work-life balance

  • Location

Research shows employees offered flexible options are 1.7x more likely to stay with their current organization and 2.5x less likely to look elsewhere for employment. Employees want increased autonomy in their work to help them meet their personal and work life needs, manage stress and feel empowered to make decisions that affect their work.

Workplace flexibility is here to stay, and the benefits to companies and employees are meaningful, including:

  • Attracting and retaining talent

  • Affording employees more input into their life at work

  • Building a strong company culture

  • Creating competitive advantage in the marketplace

Authors of the Harvard Business Review’s The Future of Flexibility at Work report, state that companies tend to implement flexibility in one of two ways: as personal accommodations for individual employee needs or as boundaryless working that provides remote work options in exchange for always-on availability. However, these two approaches are proving to be less effective for employees and employers over time.

While there is no “one-size-fits-all” workplace flexibility program, several hallmarks of successful approaches are starting to emerge:

  • Clear frameworks and boundaries

  • Trust between employers and employees

  • Availability to all employees

  • Ability to assess effectiveness and adapt

Clear frameworks and boundaries

Research shows the best flexible policies focus on outcomes, such as expectations for the job and results. These outcomes will be different for each job role and employee. For this reason, organizations should approach flexibility just as they would other important company programs—with a clear vision, framework for implementation and expectations.

Creating and communicating written workplace flexibility policies, guidelines, expectations and metrics for success allows companies to set a roadmap for the organization. Leaders and managers can adapt the company’s basic workplace flexibility structure to their different teams and individual employees. Recent Quantum Workplace research identified six potential areas of flexibility that organizational leaders might consider. According to the research, each of these types of flexibility positively impacts employee engagement when offered to employees:

  • Location – Flexibility of where I work

  • Days – Flexibility of the days I work

  • Time – Flexibility of the time of day I work

  • Shifts – Flexibility of my scheduled shifts each week

  • Tasks – Flexibility of the tasks I perform

  • Team – Flexibility of who I work with

Trust between employers and employees

Trust can’t be emphasized enough. Inherent in the idea of workplace flexibility is the notion that employers and employees fundamentally understand each other’s expectations and have shared objectives (i.e., to serve customers well, create great products, grow revenue, control costs, etc.)

Employers need to feel that team members understand and respect the demands placed on them by customers, shareholders and other stakeholders. Similarly, employees want employers to have confidence in their ability to do the job, believe in their commitment to the company, and honor the needs, desires and goals they have in their personal lives.

Leaders need to invest time, energy and effort to build trust in both directions to create workplace flexibility structures and programs that can reach their full potential.

At the top level, leaders benefit from sharing more about the reasons the organization might require less flexible workplace arrangements from time to time. Employers also need to recognize the need for employees to have quiet focus time to get things done and acknowledge that employees may need more flexibility in where and when they tackle these kinds of assignments.

Availability to all employees

All too often, employers dispense workplace flexibility on an individual basis, resulting in variability in the types of flexible accommodations granted and the equitable accessibility of those accommodations to employees.

Quantum Workplace research found that 70 percent of employees who work onsite everyday agree that the nature of their job requires them to be there in-person. Organizations that want to achieve long-term benefits of workplace flexibility need to offer flexible options to all employees and customize them according to requirements for employee categories (e.g., customer facing, health care workers, production staff, etc.)

With a broader definition of workplace flexibility, organizations can offer a variety of options that allow employees to have more autonomy over their work. For example, not all businesses, departments or teams can have remote working options, but companies can offer flexible scheduling options, new growth and development opportunities and adjustable workloads.

Ability to assess effectiveness and adapt

As with any successful initiative, companies need to consider how effectively—or not effectively—workplace flexibility programs are working and make changes when appropriate. The main ingredients for striking the right balance between increasing flexibility and employee productivity are:

  • Experiment

  • Measure

  • Fine tune

Early adopters of workplace flexibility pilot flexible work arrangements, measure their impact, collect feedback from impacted employees and adapt to continue what’s working and change what’s not.

The future is here

The research is clear. Globally, we are experiencing a shift in the cultural outlook about work in general. Instead of living to work, more people are choosing to make work fit their lifestyle, and these choices are enabled by rising per person productivity rates and the resulting power this offers employees.

Companies that want to continue thriving in the work environment of tomorrow need to embrace workplace flexibility so they can hire and retain more diverse talent, expand their pools of potential talent, realize beneficial savings in the cost of doing business and build an organizational culture that creates sustainable competitive advantage.


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