One Size Won’t Fit All: How to Make Remote Work Truly Flexible

Jake Safane

by Jake Safane

5 min read
One Size Won’t Fit All: How to Make Remote Work Truly Flexible
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It may seem counterintuitive, but the more freedom employees have, the more they actually get done at work. Here’s why.

Remote work has become the new norm for millions of workers across the United States. It saves employees time, it can save employers money, and everyone gets to avoid the slog of a commute.

But working from home also comes with challenges—crying babies and barking dogs interrupting conference calls, or your boss pinging you in the evening just as you were getting into an intense scene in Ozark.

In our always-on culture, the benefits of working from home can easily be negated by the expectation of constant availability. Instead, both employers and employees should think about nontraditional work arrangements that offer win-win flexibility.

Learning to Love Remote Work

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For many companies, the recent pandemic-driven shift to remote work has gone more smoothly than expected. As a result, a number of major players have decided to extend WFH as an option beyond the pandemic.

Online real-estate marketplace Zillow—a company you’d think would be focused already on getting more out of homes—has embraced remote work after a successful trial by fire. In April 2020, CEO Rich Barton tweeted that his “personal opinions of WFH have been turned upside down” during the pandemic, and employees now “have flexibility to work from home (or anywhere) through the end of 2020.”

In an even more dramatic move, in May social media giant Twitter told employees that they can work from home forever if their jobs enable them to, reported BuzzFeed News.

As these examples show, the current public health crisis has motivated employers not only to implement remote work reactively to avoid business shutdowns but also to think about how they can use remote work proactively and strategically going forward.

“Remote” Doesn’t Always Mean “Flexible”

Normalizing WFH is an important step toward supporting employee productivity and satisfaction, but remote work does not inherently equal flexible work. Without a clear divide between home life and work life, remote employees may feel pressure to work long hours and may have a hard time juggling professional and personal responsibilities.

True flexibility doesn’t just mean being able to start an hour earlier or work an hour later. Instead, it means being able to get work done in a time frame, location, and style that suits each employee individually while still delivering desired business results. Working from home may be part of that equation, but employees still should feel as if they can take time off, not have to respond to every email right away, and focus on childcare as needed. Otherwise, remote work can be just as constraining as typical office work—but without the benefits of in-person interaction.

As Joel Gascoigne, founder and CEO of social media management platform Buffer noted in a company blog post, he wants to “accrue the least debt possible during this time.... One debt that is likely growing within companies right now is burnout.” In an April 2020 internal survey, Buffer employees reported “feeling guilty about taking time off” as the second-largest barrier to self- or family care during these times, behind “feeling distracted/anxious.”

Sundar Pichai, CEO of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, similarly addressed burnout in an email to employees, CNBC reported in early May. Pichai also announced that May 22, 2020, would be an official day off to give employees a much-needed break in this unusual environment.

Working Less, Producing More

Many studies show that overworked employees tend to be less productive as well as less satisfied with their jobs.

Companies should aim higher than simply not overworking employees, though. Rather than insisting that employees follow a typical 9-to-5, five-day workweek, companies can use nontraditional scheduling to increase flexibility and free time. Whether that means workers will have more hours for childcare or for eating ice cream out of the container (don’t judge), they should be able to enjoy that freedom—and from an employer perspective, it benefits the bottom line. And when employees do get down to business, data show that the flexible schedules tend to translate into better results.

After surveying employees about barriers to taking care of themselves and their families, Buffer decided to implement a trial four-day workweek in May 2020, without reducing employee pay. You might ask, doesn’t that just mean working 10 hours at a stretch? The answer: Nope. The company will not require employees to cram more work into those four days.

“We know many Buffer teammates will still have caregiving and other responsibilities on some or all of the working days, and flexibility is still supported and encouraged,” Gascoigne explained in his blog post. “This day off is to augment that flexibility and give everyone a coordinated break where they won’t feel like they’re behind or catching up when they return.”

Other companies have tried similar experiments, and they show encouraging results. When Microsoft Japan switched to a four-day workweek in August 2019, sales per employee rose by nearly 40 percent. (Though the switch was temporary, the company continues to seek ways to improve work-life balance.)

Getting Their Fair Share

Companies also can facilitate flexibility by encouraging job sharing: when two employees split the responsibilities of one role so each works fewer hours and has more flexibility.

While job sharing may seem like a new idea, it has been around for decades. Many employees and companies see this arrangement as a way for parents to remain in the workforce without having to commit as much time to their employers, especially when their children are very young. However, it’s also acknowledged as not being a fast track to the C-suite.

That said, forward-thinking employers should consider job sharing as a way to attract and retain top talent who might want or need more flexibility than executive roles tend to offer. By having more than one employee share a role, employers meet their business goals, and employees are not forced to make impossible choices between work and family.

Another advantage of job sharing: boosting the skills in the position. For instance, if one person in a shared role takes a more creative approach and the other is more technical, then a sharing arrangement gives their employer a higher ROI for that position. This holds true even if the combined salaries of the job sharers run higher than would a single salary.

Employees also stand to benefit from fractional roles. A fractional CFO, for example, can work on contract or part time for a company that needs additional executive support for a specific goal like raising capital; this arrangement fills that need for as long as it’s needed—and costs less than bringing on another full-time executive. Meanwhile, the fractional CFO can work with several companies at the same time, thereby gaining the flexibility to design a schedule and career that suits their needs rather than conforming to a single employer’s vision.

Now, Flex Those Work Muscles

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If you’re an employer, instead of viewing unconventional arrangements as a sign that employees don’t care about the work, consider embracing flexibility as a sign of strength. Empowering employees to take greater control over their own time can lead to increased productivity, higher retention, and better output.

If you’re an employee, consider how flexible opportunities might help you design your career around your life, not the other way around. Instead of seeing a nontraditional schedule as a liability, approach it as a way to increase your job satisfaction and performance while giving your life outside work the time and energy it deserves.

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