What are some of the biggest challenges with flex work and how can leaders keep their teams connected and engaged in this working environment? We spoke with Dr Hopkins about all things flex work.
Dr John Hopkins is the Founder of WorkFLEX and an Associate Professor in Supply Chain Management at Swinburne University of Technology in Melbourne, Australia. His company WorkFLEX offers online courses, consulting and research services to improve the transition of newly-remote workers to flex work. Dr Hopkins’ interest in flex work began in 2014 when researching the impact of traffic congestion in cities and how to reduce it. He's been running research projects in the flex work space for 8 years now and is passionate about promoting greater workplace flexibility.
“The challenge is finding the right solution for your situation, your people and your resources. “
Hear what he had to say below.
1. You first became interested in flex work in 2014, when you were looking at its impact on traffic congestion. Can you explain a bit more about how this sparked your interest?
I was looking at a project in January of 2014 and noticed that our cities are getting more and more congested and this posed a problem not only for us getting to and from work, but also for supply chains. It is still a huge challenge today and probably becoming increasingly challenging as more and more people live in the cities. So we asked ourselves: “Why do we have congestion and what can we do to resolve it?”. It was a side project at the time but it’s something that I became really interested in. One thing I found out really quickly was that cities aren’t congested all the time. No matter where you live in the world (whether that’s Dubai, New York or London), the cities aren’t congested at 3am - they’re congested at times particularly when people are moving to and from work. People have followed this very rigid schedule for over 100 years where the vast majority of us in the city are knowledge workers (you don’t get too many factories in the middle of the city). People who work in the cities tend to be sitting in front of a computer all day. So, why do we still follow this routine of Monday to Friday 9 to 5 traveling from somewhere in the suburbs where we can afford to live to the middle of the city to work, when often all we’re doing is carrying our laptop from a to b? If we’re not travelling into the office because that’s where the tools are anymore, then why are we still doing it? It was almost like a habit. It was just the way things were, the status quo.
Now that COVID has come along, it has acted as a circuit breaker and everybody is asking those questions. Two years ago, we travelled to the office because that’s all we knew and that’s the way everybody else did it. We didn’t challenge that status quo because nobody else was doing it.
Even our own research well before COVID showed that 80% of workers in Australia never worked from home. What’s now happened in the last 18 months to 2 years is that lots of people have been forced into working from home. It’s important to note that that’s not workplace flexibility, they were forced into working from home because there was a pandemic. As challenging as it’s been, we’ve actually found that some things work better now or we’ve realized that we were wasting on average two hours a day just from commuting when we could be investing in ourselves and our wellbeing.
We’re learning from the last two years and we’re asking ourselves if we want to go back to the office full time - and the resounding answer to that is no. There is still some demand for the office for sure. In terms of our research, it’s almost bookended. The number of people who want to work remotely full time is around 10% and equally the number of those who want to go back into the office full time is pretty low as well (around 10-15%). The vast majority in the middle say they want to do a bit of both. They want to be able to have greater flexibility, do some things from home and not have to travel to the office everyday. They still want to have those in-person interactions, sense of community and connection with colleagues.
2. How has your view of flex work evolved since then?
My view hasn't necessarily changed, but the world's view has. I would say from my own personal experience with the subject between 2014 and early 2020, not a lot happened. A lot of people were interested in it, but not many people were doing it. Organizations that I spoke to quite often would even have a policy that said all these wonderful things about how flexible they were, but when you actually spoke to the employees, there was no flexibility at all - it just wasn’t implemented. There’s a lot of talk around it but not a lot of action.
COVID has been a huge catalyst for the discussion and relevance of this issue. As everyone quickly became a distributed workforce, this topic has become a real focus firstly from a business continuity perspective (i.e. we can’t come into work anymore, so how are we going to keep the business going?). Now, we’re getting into this really interesting period where we’re looking at flexibility as something that can improve our work life balance whilst not losing any productivity. In many cases, it’s actually improving productivity because we want to keep our staff happy and a really good positive that’s come out of COVID is that we talk about wellbeing and burnout a lot more openly than we did before. Burnout existed well before COVID but I think now it’s okay for people to say they’re not okay and I think wellbeing/wellness is definitely higher up on the agenda for most corporations now.
It’s all about how we can be as productive as we’ve ever been, but look over our staff more. And of course, if you keep your staff happy and healthy, they’re probably going to be more engaged and less likely to leave.
3. What do you think is the biggest challenge with adopting a flex work environment?
The biggest challenge is that you can’t keep everybody happy all the time. It’s impossible. My prediction is that after COVID, most knowledge workers will have a lot more flexibility than they had before COVID. But, they probably still won’t have as much flexibility as they wanted.
A huge advantage is the fact that we’ve had this forced period of working from home where we’ve learned a lot. We’ve really had this “try before you buy” experience. We’ve done it. We didn’t want to do it, but we’ve done it. So we can learn from that.
I think it’s about finding something that’s practical and applicable. The biggest challenge is managing it and the realization that it’s never going to be this perfect scenario or perfect situation.
In math, you’ll have one answer to everything. In management, you just have the best answer for what you have. The challenge is finding the right solution for your situation, your people and your resources.
4. What do you think are the biggest benefits of flex work to the individual?
For the individual, work life balance and the ability to have some level of control over where and when you do your work tasks. And also, time is probably the best thing you can give to anybody. So being able to save some time from commuting and put that time aside for your family or home life, do more school drop offs, and all those other things that make you feel happy about your life. Overall, workplace flexibility sees a greater work life balance.
5. How can leaders keep distributed teams connected and engaged in the flex working world?
That’s a great question and the real focus of the research that I’m involved in at the moment.
From a leader’s perspective, if you’re leading a hybrid team, then you need to work hybrid yourself. The worst thing any leader can do in a hybrid environment is to come to the office every day because that creates silos. Quite often, people will follow what leaders do. They set the example and they set the precedent for what is formally or informally the expectation of behaviour within any team. It’s important that leaders spend as much time working remotely as they do in the office so that you don’t set up that culture or proximity bias that can occur.
One thing I will say is that in terms of hybrid meetings - having a remote-first or a “one online, all online” philosophy tends to work pretty well. You may have a group of people that are in the office, but everybody still joins the meeting online to ensure a consistent experience.
I’ve seen organizations try and do it differently and it just doesn’t work. When four or five people are having ad hoc conversations in the room and others online can’t hear that, it creates inconsistency. Over time, technologies may evolve whereby we can do that - we can be in the office and still communicate effectively with other people online. But at the moment, that just doesn’t exist or maybe organizations haven’t necessarily invested in the infrastructure to enable them to do that.
Overall, my two recommendations are for the leader to lead by example and be remote and in-office yourself - don’t favour one mode over the other. In terms of those communications in meetings, definitely “one online, all online” and remote-first.