With careful consideration, talent managers can balance employees’ needs while keeping engagement high in remote work environments.
by Janet Ahn
July 29, 2021
Striking the right degree of flexibility for your team can be challenging and even stressful, but it is important to get it right, especially as the pandemic has altered our values and work style. More than 50 percent of employees want to work flexibly, going as far as quitting rather than be forced to return to the office, while others return reluctantly out of fear.
Flexible work arrangements offer individuals the opportunity to actively craft their work environments to improve their own efficiency. In addition, the talent pipeline can widen so the “best” can be recruited regardless of location. Further, flexible work can help reverse the steepest decline in the female labor force since World War II and promote innovation with new, and often better, ways to work.
But getting flexible work “right” is the conundrum. Implementing a successful flexible work environment takes careful consideration of how to balance employees’ need to connect with the need to be autonomous, all while keeping engagement and productivity high.
Balancing and managing such tensions are difficult, so organizations tend to polarize in their policies. Some organizations have taken a 100 percent flexibility route citing “culture was never your building” and advocating for empowering individual employees to dictate how they want to work. Others implement a “zero tolerance policy” or penalizing approach where they demand all employees return to the office or face a pay cut.
Both arrangements fall on the extreme ends of the spectrum and will fail to keep employees engaged or enhance their intrinsic motivation (their deep, internal enjoyment of work) for the long haul, especially given the rising interest in remote work. A failure to adequately navigate and resolve the tensions associated with flexible work arrangements will only hurt organizations; however, a well-implemented flexible work arrangement has significant advantages over either unilateral approach.
Understanding the psychology behind the sustainment of intrinsic motivation and unlocking the blockers about returning to the office can help company leaders think through the best way to navigate these complex tensions. The “AIM” method involves three simple and effective techniques proven to be effective in the flexible work environment:
Align and explain the “why”
Purpose matters but so does rationale. There is a link between feeling a sense of purpose at work and the attention, commitment and engagement crucial for high work performance and success. By linking internal work policies to the broader organization’s vision, employees have clarity and alignment around organizational expectations for how they choose to work and why.
It is equally important to effectively communicate the reasoning behind a decision and explain how it is aligned to the organization’s culture and strategy. Research on procedural justice suggests people are more likely to perceive a certain policy is fair when the process was transparent as opposed to when the process was unclear or muddled. It’s important to have strong, consistent messaging from the top to describe the rationale behind decisions to build organizational trust. Understanding the why is just as important as believing in the why.
Impart trust and accountability
Achieving psychological safety – or trust – within organizations is crucial to drive better performance and outcomes. There are two main drivers of psychological safety: high trust and high accountability. This balance needs extra attention in a flexible work arrangement. A high trust, but low accountability environment could create a sense of chaos and threaten predictability. When boundaries are not clear, people feel out of control and uncertain about their next moves. The inverse combination: a high accountability but low trust environment is probably most familiar in the form of micromanaging and patronization, which demotivates employees.
The key is to establish a mutual relationship between these two components. Leaders, managers and employees all play a role in trust and accountability. We can create the space to work in a way that fits our needs and styles, but we should return that trust by being accountable to each other and our deliverables and goals. This can manifest in the initial agreement and consensus that should be contracted between managers and employees before a project begins. Discuss how to structure deliverables and the way in which they will be achieved (via hybrid, remote, in the office) to promote high trust and high accountability. The reciprocity of this dynamic creates a safe environment for flexible work.
Mitigate out-group effects
Though there are many benefits to flexible working arrangements, there are still associated risks. For example, there may be a division between those who are in-person and those who are remote. When a meeting ends, remote employees disconnect from their computers whereas those in the office can engage in spontaneous conversations with bosses and colleagues. This can bias managers to promote those they regularly interact with at the office. Moreover, remote workers tend to be working mothers, persons of color and disabled persons who are already in vulnerable positions.
Managers and leaders can more intentionally create an inclusive culture by creating “checkpoints” for themselves. A team leader may ask themselves:
1) Have I allowed everyone to speak in the meeting and actively solicited feedback from each person?
2) If I noticed a remote worker has been quiet, did I send a quick text to check-in?
3) Do I make the effort to celebrate team wins collectively as they come?
Ensuring an inclusive culture in flexible work environments can go a long way for an organization’s well-being and success.
Company leaders must consider the nuances of flexible work arrangements and more thoroughly examine these tensions to ensure a successful work arrangement, rather than a hasty transition. One size does not fit all. Not all thrive in virtual work settings. Some meetings are better to be held in person, while others should be held virtually. Paying attention to your organization and its needs will make or break the organization’s success.