The Hidden Problem with “Work Where You Want” Flexible Work Policies

Workplaceless Blog Flexible Work Policy Leader and Group of Employees

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The latest craze is the praise and celebration of companies that offer “employee-led” remote and flexible work policies. Some of these individual-choice “work where you want” flexible work policies include:

This wave of announcements from big brand companies would have been difficult to imagine two years ago, and we applaud the motivation behind these policy shifts. Companies are embracing flexibility and empowering professionals to have autonomy and ownership over their work lives and schedules—a development which is truly worth celebrating.

However, a word of caution: power and influence can steer these policies off course.

Those who wield power in your organization will directly influence the success of your flexible work policy—for better or for worse. Without structure or aligned expectations, when the choice of where or when to work is left up to the individuals, those with power will decide the outcome. Twitter icon   The guiding policy is no longer about where, when, and how an individual is most productive, but rather about where and when their manager or leadership team is working. 

Where Flexible Work Policies Fail

I attended a future of work event last year, which included a panelist session about how to succeed as a hybrid team. The moderator started by highlighting his own senior leadership experience on a hybrid team, and to paraphrase his words:

“Three years ago we implemented a ‘flexible working policy’ and said ‘work where you want’ under two conditions: ‘think about your teammates’ and ‘the quality of our work.” That was it. What was fascinating to me was that in the majority of offices, on the majority of days, the majority of people came into the office, and I really liked that.”

It shouldn’t be surprising that when leaders came into the office, their team members followed. This scenario isn’t unique. Leaders often fail to see how their influence on the power dynamics of a workplace reinforces their beliefs. Hybrid teams with flexible work policies will continue to see employees coming into the office if leaders fail to set up the organization for success. And, if employees feel forced to work from the office—or feel penalized for working remotely when everyone else is in the office—they will continue to quit.  

What Companies Need to Do to Be Successful with Flexible Work Policies

In theory, “employee-led” or “personal choice” flexible work policies indicate a readiness to embrace new ways of working, but without proper structure and support, hybrid teams will fail with these types of policies. We outline what companies need to do to be successful and truly benefit employees with remote work policies:

Write Down Your Flexible Work Policy. 

Even if your company’s flexible work policy is meant to be truly flexible, the lack of a written document leaves too much open for interpretation. Aside from the very real legal requirements and tax implications of a “work wherever, whenever” type of flexible work policy, having a written policy helps ensure everyone is on the same page. This document aligns expectations for what is and what isn’t acceptable for flexible work, offers transparency, and makes sure that the policy applies to all employees.

Executives Must Role Model a Placeless Mindset. 

Professionals look to the behaviors of executives and senior leaders to determine their own choices when it comes to where or how to accomplish their work. When executives adopt a placeless mindset, employees are more likely to follow their lead, which continues to cascade throughout every level of the organization.

Leaders Must Work Away from the Office.

When managers work from the office exclusively, there will be imbalance and exclusion. More employees will come to the office for “face-time” and start to revert back to in-office biases and presence-based performance management habits.

When leaders regularly work remotely, they can more easily empathize with the experiences of their remote workers, identify gaps in hybrid team processes, and prevent issues. Leaders working remotely helps create more inclusive hybrid teams

Managers Need Digital Skills Training.

Hybrid work is harder to manage due to increased logistical complexities and the emergence of two employee groups. And frankly, current hybrid work leadership is unprepared and reluctant to learn how to lead hybrid teams. Some managers believe that leading a hybrid team is no different than motivating an in-office team. Other managers feel they have it figured out already after managing through the forced remote working scenario for the past two years. Yet others haven’t truly bought into the ways teams can be productive while working remotely. All of these are recipes for failure. 

Leaders at every level must prioritize building digital-first practices such as remote performance management, virtual connections, boundary setting, and hybrid inclusion.

Teams Need to Adopt Async-First Work Habits.

A commitment to flexible working requires a commitment to async-first work. Building the skills and structures to communicate and collaborate asynchronously will improve results when working flexibly. While there is no perfect ratio for balancing async and sync work, understanding the opportunities to improve the balance between the two allows for both autonomous work and rich communication.

Employees Must Have an Unwavering Commitment to Documentation.

In order for employees to truly work from anywhere, on their own timetables, they need to have easy access to information and decisions. When information and decisions are difficult to find, employees waste time. Additionally, when it comes time to managing performance, documentation becomes critical to evaluating results and ensuring equity of evaluations between in-office and remote employees. A Communication Charter can help teams clarify where information should be documented and how to instill these behaviors throughout the organization.

At Workplaceless, we want “work where you want” or “employee-led” flexible work policies to succeed because we truly believe that individuals should have power and control in their lives. However, we fear that companies and leaders will see their flexible work policies as failures and end them, when they weren’t set up to succeed in the first place. 

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Jacqueline Zeller

Jacqueline Zeller

Motivated by her own career path working on flexible, hybrid, and fully remote teams since 2011, Zeller advocates for effective remote work that creates opportunities. She advances the Workplaceless mission by creating content and fostering connections that help professionals and companies make remote work productive, healthy, and sustainable. Follow her on LinkedIn.
Motivated by her own career path working on flexible, hybrid, and fully remote teams since 2011, Zeller advocates for effective remote work that creates opportunities. She advances the Workplaceless mission by creating content and fostering connections that help professionals and companies make remote work productive, healthy, and sustainable. Follow her on LinkedIn.
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