What Backlashes Should Leaders Be Aware of with Flexible Working?

working from home signWorkplace environments and their cultures continue to evolve as globalization, technology advancements, and the footprint of the Millennials continue to widen and influence work structure, processes, and the office design.  How are these events changing the way companies internally do business?  What are the potential backlashes from moving fast into the future? How can leaders keep their teams cohesive, productive, and moving in one direction?

Korn Ferry (2017) issued a series of reports on talent recruitment and what employees are demanding when they select an employer.  In 2016, company culture (employee focus and inclusiveness) and career progression were top considerations for new talent as compared to just five years before when benefits and a company’s reputation were top contenders.  By 2022, talent acquisition professionals believe company culture will remain high and flexible working (remote, cloud offices) will be the number one consideration.  Millennial preferences are influencing work design based on their numbers.  In 2015, Millennials accounted for ~ 30% of the working population with forecasts estimating their growth to more than 50% by 2025 (Woods, 2016).

Will companies have a hill to climb in maintaining a company culture with a reputation of being inclusive and employee-focused while integrating cloud offices, remote working, and flexible working schedules?  At one end of the continuum you have the full team, each with an office or cubical, who works together between 8 am – 5 pm.  On the other end of the spectrum, the office is virtual, with employees working remotely through cloud based connection and occasionally meeting in groups at temporary facilities or informal settings. How far down this continuum will businesses move to accommodate their workforce preferences?  Can a virtual company realistically maintain an inclusive culture?

Most people would agree that greater work flexibility is inevitable, because it will be demanded and technology can enable virtual communication.  Despite employees’ favor in having more work-life balance, what are some of its potential backlashes that leaders should be aware of and prepared to mitigate?  Direct costs may be a factor?  Although savings can come from reducing the office footprint, there will likely be increased costs in Cyber security, technology hardware/software, and temporary facilities.  What side of the balance sheet those costs land on will depend on the company, but leaders should also be identifying and evaluating the not-so-obvious costs?

What about productivity?  Can job responsibilities be redesign in a way that allows for remote access without sacrificing productivity?  Some companies may benefit on the bottom line from salaried employees who will voluntarily give back a portion of their 2-3 hours of daily commute time, as they feel more refreshed and focused at the home office.  However, do all employees have the discipline to work remotely?  Some employees, whose jobs can be performed remotely, still do best in a structured environment away from the home.  They may have a difficult time staying focused and making the transition back and forth between work and personal responsibilities. These are all questions and issues employers will have to wrestle with and decide how to accommodate without sacrificing productivity.

I believe a high-risk backlash is the erosion of organizational cohesiveness and having employees feel they are part of the team.  Lack of face-to-face interaction can result in employees feeling alienated, lonely, and disconnected from their colleagues.  Although video conferencing and social media can bring team members together, they cannot substitute for the natural relationship building that is co-constructed in conversation shared over a cup of coffee, lunch, or a hallway chat.  These naturally occurring interactions make people feel valued, affirmed, and more accountable to the team.  These unplanned or casual interactions provide opportunities to form personal bonds, mentor, discuss impromptu business ideas, and consider creative solutions.  Strong co-worker relationships create a shared sense of purpose that goes beyond performing for a paycheck.

Another potential backlash is the concern, anxiety, and wasted energy that employees have about their performance and future opportunities when they work remotely.  Working in an office environment allows employees to receive daily spoken and unspoken feedback on how they are contributing and presenting themselves.  With employees fearing “out of sight, out of mind,” they wonder what implication that remote and flexible working will have on their performance appraisal, future promotions, and general opportunities.

Communication may be another area that becomes more challenging in a working environment where employees routinely call in, video conference, or read an email summary. People have always struggled with accurately giving and receiving communication.  The workstyle of the future may put additional stress on the frequency and accuracy of messaging.  Burley-Allen (1995) has broken down communication into three messaging parts: the words (7%), tone of voice (38%), and facial/body expressions (55%).  Content and intent can easily be lost in translation through a conference call or email.   Do you remember a personal texting incident where you initiated a hailstorm that left you baffled and thinking, “That’s not what I meant?”   The fact that we all probably have at least one story along those lines is not surprising, when you consider that 7% of communication is held in the words and leaves the remaining 93% up for interpretation.  Whoever designed and launched Emojis was a godsend to the texting community.  At least now the receiver can infer some “tone of voice” and “facial expression.”

Changing work structure and processes will naturally change co-worker relationships.  Change is inevitable, so how can a company and its employees navigate this change well?  As is usually the case, there is no silver bullet or one thing that companies should focus on.  Success is usually built by doing several things well, and I believe companies inherently have the knowledge to set a vision for their future, create goals to get there, understand and overcome obstacles, and hold themselves accountable.  Sometimes leadership needs a partner.  Coaches are change experts, and I believe organizational and leadership coaches will be called to work more frequently beside leaders to help them move their teams from where they stand to where they want to be.

References

Burley-Allen, M. (1995). Listening: The forgotten skill: A self-teaching guide (2nd ed.).  New York, NY: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. ISBN: 9780471015871.

Korn Ferry Institute. (2017). The talent forecast, part 1: Adapting today’s candidate priorities for tomorrow’s organizational success. Retrieved from  http://www.kornferry.com/the-talent-forecast/the-talent-forecast

Woods, K. (2016). Organizational ambidexterity and the multi-generational workforce. Journal of Organizational Culture, Communications and Conflict, 20(1), 95-111.


HE21118Davis_07-medAbout the Author: Sandra Dillon is a professional coach, consultant, and mentor with an extensive background in business development, leadership, and ministry which provides her with the experience, relational skills, and proven processes to move individuals, couples, and leaders to higher levels of personal awareness, effectiveness, and goal achievement.  She coaches in a variety of areas including life purpose and plans, business, finances, and premarital/marriage.  Contact: sandra.s.dillon@hotmail.com

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