We hosted Flex Summit in early June, a first-of-its-kind conference where thought leaders, innovators, and authors shared their insights, inspiration, and stories about the future of flexible work. We heard about the promise of flexible work and pitfalls. We also learned about practical and innovative ways to make flexible workplaces a reality.
At the event, we heard from several speakers about how to make flexible work a reality, which included a discussion around the cultural barriers to flexibility. Here are some of the key takeaways:
3 Cultural Challenges to Flexible Work
Many of us think about flexible work as a requirement and a right. And it’s appealing to organizations: Simply offering flexible work options leads to 89% higher retention rates for companies.
But in many global communities, WiFi is a luxury. This makes flexible work a major undertaking that spans geographies, cultures, and socioeconomic disparities. Dr. Alaa Murabit with the United Nations (UN) has experienced this firsthand and provides a unique view into how flexible work is capable of transforming entire communities.
In sharing the story of how the UN tried to reach new parents in a community in India, she underscores three key challenges with flexible work:
1. It Exacerbates Inequalities: Flex work requires those remote workers who speak the local language and have frequent access to technology. Those requirements alone disqualify more than 60% of the world – and mean that flex work is largely limited to developed countries. India is the only developing country where over 50% of employees are capable of flex work.
2. Mixing Local Workers and International Management: In many of these situations, someone from outside of the community is brought on to manage the local workers. These workers are paid less, yet are tasked with helping management bridge local cultural and social understanding.
3. Isolation Impacts Mental Health and Employee Power: While flex work is shown to help retention, engagement, and productivity, it blurs the line between work and personal life. Over 30% of remote employees say they do not know when they’re not supposed to be working. And over 85% of remote workers globally feel a sense of isolation. In communities where the collective is a crucial part of the social fabric, remote work is contributing to a mental health crisis – yet mental health is heavily stigmatized in many parts of the world. It’s hard for those who are key providers – or the main provider – for their families to prioritize their mental health.
In addition, remote workers often don’t communicate with one another frequently and can’t easily organize. As a result, they lack collective bargaining power to demand things such as benefits and progressive raises, which has led to the exploitation of global employees. However, these challenges do not mean that flexible work is impossible in all communities.
3 Ways to Make Flexible Work a Reality
As Dr. Murabit emphasizes, people will give up a lot for flexible work – but shouldn’t have to. This comes at a time when our labor gap is growing so much that, by 2021, employers are going to ask the average worker to do 40% more than they’re already doing. Making this work requires:
A set of rules. According to Dr. Murabit, it’s incredibly powerful when local management leverages the same technology they use to communicate with their employees to tell their employees to stop work. In one 400-person company that embraced this approach, retention rates rose 20% in three years.
Responsive management: Remote employees need to feel supported by inclusive and responsive managers, which means they know exactly who to reach out to for any request and their manager responds immediately. Employees in these environments are over 80% healthier and happier at work and at home.
Dr. Murabit closes her session by saying the greatest challenge and opportunity for companies is to create workspaces where employees can show the full range of themselves, beyond being a worker. As someone working in an organization actively researching ways to improve flexible work for all communities, I agree. While I won’t diminish the focus and planning required to succeed with flex work, it’s just as much a matter of addressing the smallest details as it is putting in place a full-blown strategy.
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