When we talk about the future of work, one of the first subjects that comes to mind is that of flexibility, because companies that had managed it rather well until now (most often by pretending that the subject did not exist) have taken it in the face with the end of the pandemic and employees wishing to keep certain advantages acquired during this exceptional period.
Many people reduce this topic to just remote working, when it is really about flexibility in a more global way.
Let’s try to look at the subject in the light of the trends I was talking about a while ago.
It is of course at the heart of the matter because it has allowed what was until now unthinkable for most employees and businesses: generalized remote working, at least for the jobs for which it is possible.
The idea here is not to discuss the benefits or drawbacks of remote working, the limits to be put in place or not, the fact that it is more or less suitable for some people depending on a large number of factors.
On the other hand, there is a reality against which we cannot go: some employees liked it, others less so (but have they experienced real remote working when it is imposed and in an unprepared business?), but most of them want to continue to work remotely at different rhythms and, above all, the business can no longer tell them that it is not possible, since it has been done for nearly two years!
In his personal life, the employee has fully integrated the “ATAWAD” concept (Anytime, Anywhere, Any Device): he does what he has to do, no matter when, where or what device he has at his disposal, and in a way he wonders why, in a professional context, he has to be at a certain place at a certain time to do certain things.
I often wonder how businesses would have gone through the crisis without the Internet or with the networks and tools of the early 2000s. Very badly in my opinion and the economic and social impact would have been terrible.
But then again, technology makes remote working and flexible hours more possible and easier today than ever, and probably less so than tomorrow.
Objectively, the tools are there and the businesses are equipped. However, what the pandemic has shown is that they are not well known or mastered by the employees, nor are the fundamental use cases of remote working.
In any case, technologies and their uses in the private sphere plead for a more flexible usage framework in the professional sphere and, in any case, can no longer be considered as a barrier.
The evolution of society and the economy
From a societal point of view, there is a strong demand for a better balance between personal and professional life. This includes not only the workplace, but also the flexibility of working hours to allow these two aspects of the employee’s life to coexist, articulate and even mix, rather than being separated as it is often heard.
The shortage of talent in certain sectors is pushing for more flexibility in the workplace. First of all, by having an attractive remote working policy for the candidates who make it an essential criterion and then by recruiting the talents where they are, therefore possibly in “full remote” in a city where the business does not necessarily have offices.
The transformation of service activities and knowledge work
I often say that activities related to knowledge work and in general the production of intangible things are organized in the worst possible way, having transposed Taylorist and industrial approaches to professions that only manage exceptions.
On the one hand this will have no impact on making work more or less flexible, but on the other hand frictionless workflows will reduce the need for interaction to compensate for the need to be co-located, especially for people who are not very comfortable with collaboration/communication tools (there are many more of them than we think.
Bottom line: work is neither a place nor a time.
I often say that work is neither a place nor a time but a state of mind. Or rather it should not be, because for many businesses it is very difficult to think otherwise than “the employee is in the office from 9am to 6pm”.
Today there is a strong demand for more flexible work and it is no longer possible to answer that it is not possible, since it has worked and the technology exists to allow it.
I would temper my remarks with a nuance: if flexibility has worked in terms of the workplace, this is much less the case for schedules, or not in an official way. The remote employee can indeed organize his flexibility as long as the work is done, without anyone noticing, but this is not part of any official system and can therefore be problematic in the long run.
Will this demand be met? For remote work, we can think that it is inevitable, even if some businesses go backwards. Many will find that it does not go far enough, not fast enough, but it is the way we tend to go, in spite of some counter-examples which are certainly mediatized (Elon Musk…) but not very representative.
For flexible hours it is more complicated because it requires an even greater change of mindset and the impact on the organization of work is anything but anecdotal.
In fact, the real issue is more organizational than HR. Whether we are talking about flexibility of location or working time, businesses have seen it as an HR benefit instead of a way to organize production, hence the fact that forced remote working has been painful in many cases. In remote work there is “work” but everyone has focused on “remote” and has got the issue wrong.
We are therefore moving towards more flexibility but, above all, towards organizational modes that allow this flexibility and it is this second point that can slow down this inevitable trend.
An inevitable but fragile trend. Today, the balance of power between businesses and employees/candidates has been reversed, allowing for changes that were previously unthinkable, or at least not on this scale. If the economic context reverses this balance of power again, businesses that are culturally less comfortable with this flexibility will see an excellent reason to return to the good old “9 to 6” office hours.