As organisations redesign work for the future, we need to start advancing our thinking about what it means to operate a business flexibly and how to create more sustainable work models.
You might be sick of hearing commentary about leaders who want their people back in the office full-time, or debates around the optimal amount of days to work in the office versus from home.
We’re at a point where we need to move this conversation into new territory because, let’s be honest, the organisations that haven’t yet embraced flexible and hybrid ways of working are unlikely to do so just because they’ve finally read enough articles telling them the benefits of these new styles of working.
Instead, it’s employers that are already embracing flexible and hybrid work arrangements that have an opportunity to take their organisations to new heights and redesign work in a way that not only boosts employee performance and engagement, but also sets the organisation up for future success.
Expanding our definition of flexible work
“It’s important that we don’t cling to constructs that no longer serve us,” says Alison Hernandez JAPAC, Director at HSM Advisory. “If we think back to the very nature of work design, it goes back to 1914 with Henry Ford and the 40-hour work week. We’re now in 2023, so [instead of] grappling with the status quo, we need to embrace the new.”
There has been a bit of reductionism around hybrid-work models, as they are often talked about only in the context of where we work, says Hernandez.
“The most common question we’re asked at the moment is, ‘How many days should we be expecting people back in the office?’ But that needs to be a much broader question. We absolutely need to create moments of connection, joy, laughter and energy, but it’s about being more intentional about why we want people back in. Asking them to come in, sit at their desk and interact on a video call is not the optimum use of people’s time.”
“We’re seeing people already breaking the mould of being a corporate footsoldier who marches into the building between 8-9am and leaves between 5-6pm.” – Alison Hernandez JAPAC Director, HSM Advisory
The end goal, she says, is to facilitate sustainable high performance rather than productivity.
“We need to look at time as a dimension of flexibility, not just place. And we are starting to see that. Often you’ll see a bit of an exodus of [workers] in the city at mid-afternoon, or people coming in at 10 or 11 in the morning. We’re seeing people already breaking the mould of being a corporate footsoldier who marches into the building between 8-9am and leaves between 5-6pm.
“When we think about caregiving responsibilities and wellbeing, and we offer some autonomy over the time lever of work, people respond really well to that,” says Hernandez. “If you’re telling employees where and when you expect them to work, you’re removing their empowerment. What they hear is, ‘You don’t trust me to determine how I can produce my best work.'”
Thinking about flexibility from a time perspective also helps those working in industries that can’t offer work-from-home arrangements, she says. If they can choose to work in shift patterns that align with their personal schedules, or simply at the time of day when they do their best work, we’re able to layer more fairness into conversations about flexible work.
Read HRM’s article about helping employees understand their chronotypes to design more effective workdays.
Choose your own adventure
Hernandez has heard of organisations operating on a seven-day work-week, meaning employees have complete autonomy to work on any day, at any hour, so long as they complete their weekly hours.
“I was having a conversation with a civil engineer recently who, because she’s in a dual career household and is a caregiver for a young child, prefers to work one day on the weekend when her partner shares the care responsibilities. That gives her a day off in the week to spend intentional time with her child.
“I was talking to her about her engagement levels and her return from parental leave, and she told me that she is getting calls from competitors attempting to poach her every week… but she isn’t going anywhere because she has been trusted to formulate a working week that’s optimal for her.”
Put simply, Hernandez says these new ways of working are a shift to “an adult-to-adult relationship, rather than a parent-child relationship”.
“The days of an organisation telling us what to do [are over]. It’s about mutual respect. Most people want to do meaningful work and to make a difference.”
Our careers are getting longer
One of the major macro-trends that Hernandez says should influence a company’s refreshed work design strategy is Australia’s ageing workforce.
“We’re living longer, so work needs to be a marathon rather than a sprint,” she says. “Our parents’ parents might have had a 30-year career, spent some time in retirement and that was that, but now we’re commonly seeing people extend their working lives into their 60s and 70s, so that needs to be sustainable.”
To create what Hernandez calls an “age-inclusive workforce” and to make work more sustainable over the long-term, she says employers need to stop making assumptions about what people need and want.
“There’s so much diversity within a generation,” she says. “It’s about enabling people to work longer by working differently. For example, I’m in my early 50s and I’ve worked a nine-day fortnight for the past five years. I’m now working a four-day week and I see a nine-month [work] year in my future. To stay in work for another 10 or 20 years, people need reset and disconnection time in their calendars each year.”
Again, it’s about asking the right questions, she says. Understand what people want from their late career stages and then carefully craft a proposition with the individual.
“For example, I can think of a law firm where a senior lawyer expressed his intention to retire. That meant they were going to lose 30+ years of expertise, client relationships and deep smarts. Whereas all that was needed was a conversation about what that person needed.
“He left to tick some things off his bucket list and then returned three months later in a different employment arrangement. This freed up the bottleneck for talent to step up and assume more responsibility, but the individual could stay on for three days a week as an expert advisor and mentor.”
Alison Hernandez will be speaking more on redesigning work for the long-term as part of AHRI’s upcoming webinar on 1 June. The webinar is free for AHRI members and will include conversations with HR leaders about how they’re approaching work redesign in their organisation. Book your spot now.
Another example Hernandez recalls was when a client called to inform her that one of their most valued and longest-serving managers was leaving the organisation and that they wanted to support him with some retirement coaching.
“The first thing I asked him was, ‘After a 37-year career, why are you retiring?’ and his answer was, ‘Because no one has asked me to stay.’ This shows us that as well as co-creating our organisations of the future, we also need to co-create individual careers. Many of the problems and attrition that employers see occurs because they haven’t taken the time to ask the right questions.
“People don’t often think intentionally about the next phase of their life and it’s an [employer’s] job to support them to do that. Employees expect organisations to support them in a longer working life.”
The four steps to redesigning work
So how can HR help to champion more effective and sustainable work arrangements for the diverse range of humans that make up our workforce?
Hernandez and the HSM Advisory team have worked with companies across the globe using their four-stage redesigning work methodology (see below), which starts with understanding what your people need.
“You can incorporate existing data sets that you might have, but there are also a lot of different listening tools that you can use to connect with your workforce and uncover their experience, expectations, needs and wants.”
The next phase is to take that “deep and rich” understanding of your people and use it to reimagine the future with them.
“[You need to have] multifunctional design teams – it shouldn’t just be on the shoulders of HR. HR can be the catalyst for this design process, but it needs to be inclusive of diverse perspectives across the organisation at all levels.”
This goes for all manner of decision-making – from determining your asynchronous work expectations to rethinking how to measure productivity.
“The third phase is your experimental stage. It’s about being a bit bold and taking some risks with your pilot programs. You can do that in pockets of the organisation and then amplify the results,” she says.
“The last phase is about assessing what you learned and what you reimagined and then acting on it. The golden thread of all this is equipping your leaders with the future skill they need, whether it’s around performance and productivity, hybrid enabling or those human-centric skills. They can really make or break the employee value proposition.”