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Since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, a myriad of corporations have overhauled the way they operate. Now, with the possibility of a return to the office on the horizon, but with nearly two-thirds of US workers wanting to remain working from home (according to Gallup), organizations need to develop long-term hybrid work strategies that meet the needs of both employees and businesses.
In determining these approaches, leaders should keep one concept at or near the top of the priority list: flexibility. Remote work is no longer an added benefit, but a requirement for a happy and productive workforce, and we actually have ample precedents to draw upon; a number of industries have, over decades, enjoyed the benefits of flexible work. I’ve seen successful remote and distributed projects and jobs handled firsthand through my tenure in the creative services field, and it’s a model attainable across virtually all industries, even for frontline workers.
How a Single Sector Led the First Wave of Flexible Work
The creative services industry has relied on flexible work for more than 20 years. Professionals in this field have had longstanding access to key tools that enabled the collaboration required to move projects forward, all from remote locations.
As the CEO and cofounder of SPY, a creative studio servicing advertising agencies and motion picture studios, I lived this reality firsthand, splitting time between my home office and our headquarters in San Francisco. We engaged award-winning artistic talent around the world, working from our studio, remote studios and even home offices. The accessibility of affordable technology, high-speed connectivity and talent acquisition strategies combined to transform an entire field of endeavor. As a result, after 15 years of working in this flexible work environment, I developed a managerial mindset that differs from traditional corporate viewpoints in various respects:
• Outcomes matter more than hours. Too often, business leaders focus on the amount of hours workers put in each week. Instead, they need to focus on the true outcome of the work, and seek to understand ways in which each employee will produce his or her best, regardless of their physical location or hours. This creates an environment where all employees can thrive, and eliminates a number of obstacles to success.
• Technology and workplace culture form the catalyst for change. Digital transformation and the future of business operations require the right balance of tech investment and adapted rules of engagement in the workplace. Creating an environment that levels the playing field between those in the office and remote staff is critical to fostering collaboration and cross-functional synergy.
The New Flexible Work Model
The past year has provided an opportunity for organizations to understand how their operations can adapt to accommodate flexible work. As hybrid hours have simply become an accepted part of day-to-day living, it is impacting corporate mindsets and changing dated perception, including:
• Increased control for employees. Business leaders must give their teams and talent the control to manage their own destinies. So, instead of instituting company-wide hybrid work rules, let individual teams determine what will work best for them. Leaders must hire people because of their talent and trust that it will produce needed results, instead of confining them to outdated schedule expectations that can hinder creativity, motivation and loyalty.
• Shifting team goals. We’ve seen a shift in priorities since the onset of the pandemic, with teams eliminating historical practices that were process-oriented and lacked big-picture thinking. For example, we’ve adjusted the marketing team’s goals at Fuze to align more closely with broader business goals. This ensures that we’re working in an efficient manner that will also push the needle for our broader operations. Second, teams are further defining the rules of engagement for interpersonal communication, providing boundaries that were initially blurred during the rapid shift to remote work last year, but are necessary in order to ensure employees maintain a strong work-life balance.
Looking ahead, this distributed work model will affect broader company strategic decisions, such as opening smaller satellite offices to accommodate migrations from city to city and state to state, as well as supporting an increase in the number of teams that collaborate across time zones and office environments.
Engaging the Next Generation of Flexible Workers
While some sort of hybrid model is inevitable for the majority of corporate America, we must also work to usher in the next generation of flexible employees: frontline workers. Historically, workers in industries like manufacturing and retail have been tied to rigid structures and location-specific environments that hindered the adoption of remote work. This lack of flexibility has led to an environment where frontline workers often don’t trust leadership to make the necessary adjustments to accommodate their needs. Moving forward, investment in innovative modes of communications technology, alongside 5G and Internet of things adoption, will allow for greater agility within these sectors and a more powerful and rewarding workforce experience. This multi-fold impact will include improving frontline workers’ connection to their company, reducing employee churn and increasing company engagement and productivity, as well as improving the customer experience.
The Flexible Future
My background in creative services proved to me that hybrid work models can drive efficiency and help with both talent acquisition and retention. Recent data from various sources has made it clear that flexibility should not be considered a benefit, but a requirement for attracting and maintaining the best employees. Now that companies across many industries have seen the value of a distributed workforce, we can expect further adoption of hybrid work policies, and alongside it technical innovations that make communication and collaboration easier. The result can and should be an overarching system where every member of the workforce has the power to determine how they can be most impactful in their role.