Workforce Flexibility: We Don’t Have a Clue What It Means

Image credit: iStockphoto/Khosrork

It’s funny that we celebrate hybrid working and remote working as a new level of flexibility.

But after a year and a half of global experimentation, we still have a hazy idea of what flexibility means to the workforce. And this is going to be a challenge for CHROs and their C-level teams as they look to remodel their workforce for the future of work. 

The elusive use case

Workforce flexibility is not something new. We’ve all wanted it; it’s just that employers never saw the need to offer it.

The reasons were varied. Many workforce-related processes are not ready; the management style is not compatible; there is no real use case of workforce flexibility offering benefits other than recruitment and retention of hard-to-find talent. But it all boiled down to a fear of loss of control and management.

Then COVID-19 offered the use case for workforce flexibility. After having a taste, employees are now demanding more flexibility — and are threatening to quit otherwise. 

In the 2021 EY Work Reimagined Employee Survey, 54% of Asia Pacific employees are willing to quit their work if they do not have the current level of work flexibility.

Koss notes that flexibility is now a hot topic for employers looking to attract or retain top talent.

“So, this issue about flexibility is a huge data point for many organizations to consider now. And that is something that is new,” says Stephen Koss, EY Asia-Pacific Workforce Advisory Leader.

Organizational cultures have also changed during the pandemic. In the survey, 48% of employees globally and in the Asia-Pacific region say that their corporate culture has changed and improved throughout the pandemic. This really debunks the belief that workforce flexibility can degrade corporate culture.

Technology is also showing how easy it is to drive productivity while offering workforce flexibility. We would not have thought hybrid working possible if this had been the 90’s. But now, with cheap broadband and more intuitive video technologies, remote working is more than bearable.

It is clear that companies need to embrace workforce flexibility and stop offering lip service.

But there’s a catch. We still do not know what we mean when we say workforce flexibility.

Finding the definition

“We’re finding a lack of common understanding of the term ‘flexibility’ used in organizations,” says Koss.

The reason is that employees and employers are only getting to terms with the idea of workplace and workforce flexibility.

For example, when we say flexibility, we often think of remote working. Yet, before the pandemic, we would have thought about working hours.

The EY survey showed similar results. When given a choice between flexibility in work location and work hours, 87% of employees in the Asia-Pacific prefer flexibility in when they work.

It also differs according to country. For example, the survey describes how employees in China and Japan still value face-to-face interactions and have a preference for “in-office culture.”

“If I roster you into the office for two days a week that are fixed, am I giving you flexibility? These are some of the practical issues that we have to sort of work through now with many of our clients,” says Koss.

Corporate soul searching needed

However, companies cannot evade this question or hope that return-to-workplace will negate this desire for flexibility.

With expectations and cultures changed, companies need to find their definitions for flexibility.

This will involve relooking at the workforce processes. Employers and managers will also need to change their ideas of control and management. And employees will need to come to terms with some level of monitoring.

Koss notes that companies need to be prepared to come to terms with flexibility on their terms.

“When it comes to defining some of these policies and the new ways of work, it's really hard to say that there would be one standard way that will work for everybody because there's going to be a lot of uniqueness across different industries and, even within the same organization, across different segments of the workforce. Therefore, it doesn't lend itself to having a single kind of policy for everybody,” says Koss. 

Koss urges companies to experiment with the concept of flexibility when employees are still open to the idea, and the term has not been fully defined.

“The solution is to really get involved in an experiment, understand what those different dimensions are, and find a way to take that problem and to break it up and cut it down. And that's what we've been working on with many of our clients,” he explains.

It’s the kind of experimentation that companies need to do now — or see a large part of their workforce leave.

Winston Thomas is the editor-in-chief of CDOTrends, DigitalWorkforceTrends and DataOpsTrends. He is always curious about all things digital, including new digital business models, the widening impact of AI/ML, unproven singularity theories, proven data science success stories, lurking cybersecurity dangers, and reimagining the digital experience. You can reach him at [email protected].

Image credit: iStockphoto/Khosrork