Twenty-five years ago, renowned adman Jay Chiat proclaimed that his agency was moving to a “virtual office.” No more cubicles. No more dedicated desks — just expansive space, with lockers for personal items and laptops dedicated for day-use-only. Using technology as the ultimate enabler, his workers would boost creativity by maneuvering fluidly in the most open of open offices.
Unfortunately for Chiat, within six months employees rebelled, and within 18 months his new office design was a disaster. His hunch that workers wanted more freedom and agency was right. But with the open office, the pendulum swung too far away from the cubicle. Knowledge workers didn’t like being in public, distracting spaces all the time any more than they liked being in isolated pigeonholes.
The real answer—flexible working—wouldn’t be en vogue for many more years.
Flexible working gives us freedom over how we get work done rather than mandating hours inside of a desolate cubicle or in a noisy open floor plan. It encourages us to use our own judgment to determine what we work on, when we work on it, and where we do it. For the individual, it allows them control. For the organization, it helps increase worker morale, engagement, performance, productivity, and loyalty. But sadly, flexible working is a concept all too often misunderstood and more often than not, poorly practiced.
So how can we help make flexible work, work? We can start by identifying and addressing these needs:
The distribution of power
Ineffectual management is a big reason why flexible working sometimes falls flat. Some managers reward senseless posturing, where workers simply pretend to be busy (an approach that requires being present at the office). And even if workers technically have the freedom to work outside of the office in this situation, they can suffer as second-class citizens if they choose to do so. Other times workers might over-communicate to compensate for not being in the office and within shouting distance of the water cooler. They are the first to respond to every ping, regardless of the time of day. Their smartphones and laptops, in effect, double as beautifully designed handcuffs.
The best way for a manager to create a truly flexible workplace is not to tell workers how to work at all—let alone reward them for a particular working style. Instead of it being ‘do it our way for the benefit of the company’ they in effect say ‘do it your way, so long as it advances the vision’.
Ricardo Semler, the CEO of Brazilian manufacturer Semco Partners, did just this, and let go of control. In the process, he radically reinvented his company’s ways of working.
In 1980, the newly appointed CEO and fresh-faced twenty-one-year-old abruptly fired 60% of the top managers who were set in their ways. He then took a bigger leap of faith by permitting staff to set their own hours. This enabled them to commute when traffic was lighter in an ultra congested Sao Paulo, but more importantly, it sent a message: ‘we trust you’.
Today at Semco, employees are mobilized to solve problems and make decisions, including setting their own salaries. The sentiment is “get your work done and enjoy your life”; it’s not a suggestion so much as a mandate. Pioneers like Semler appreciate that giving people control over how they work not only permits them to perform at their best, it also helps them to understand and optimize the system of work that underpins and advances the entire organization. Employees feel empowered to make flexible working flourish, and it’s confirmed by the company’s steady growth.
A malleable practice
Flexible work is desirable because it allows workers to shift their work environments to fit their personality type, given mood, and the particular task at hand. The best business practice that accommodates for this is called activity-based working (ABW). The term, coined 25 years ago by Erik Veldhoen, simply treats work as an activity rather than a place people go. The vital ingredient for companies is the commitment to support this constant movement with the right digital tools.
Some companies tout flexible working yet fail to provide the right tools to actually do it. According to Steelcase’s 360 Global Report, fixed technology outnumbers mobile technology by 2:1 in the workplace. This means employees may not be able to take a business call while strolling in the park or to work deeply on a project in the silence of their own home office.
Staying in motion—which can only be accomplished with the help of mobile tools—not only boosts creativity but leads to serendipitous collisions, interesting collaborations, and wonderful insights. Movement is really the foundation of Apple’s headquarters in Cupertino; part playground, part office, and yes, mostly park—the main feature is for employees to be in perpetual motion.
Progressive businesses determined on creating healthy work practices must first accept the fact that every employee performs their best work in different ways. Then they must cater to that employee’s chosen mode of work with the right tools.
A nourishing place
The flexible working mantra is to seek out a nourishing work environment for the activity at hand. Fulfill your responsibilities to your company, and do it from wherever you’re able to maintain your focus.
It’s become the exception to create an office that provides for the myriad of ways in which we work today. While Chiat got the premise right of getting rid of the cubicle, he neglected the need for quiet private spaces for individual work. An average worker is interrupted every 11 minutes and what’s more worrisome is how it takes them over 23 minutes to return to the task at hand. This is so often what flexible work has come to represent; workers staying at home just so they can get some real work done.
I’ve found I get my best work done in a particular coffee shop. Like many other public spaces, it provides just enough distraction to be an uplifting backdrop for writing. And yes, it happens to also have the best coffee in town.
For companies, this means discovering their own balance to welcome the variety of ways their employees work as well as recharge. The grand aspiration then becomes realizing a unique version of architecture professor David Dewane’s Eudaimonia Machine—a space that allows for your workforce to flourish.
Getting it right
Company leaders who fear losing control and breeding a state of chaos by fostering a truly flexible work environment are stifling innovation instead of fostering it. But there are those who are getting flexible working right.
At social media management company Buffer, leaders orientate work around the fact that there is a limit to the amount of creative work that one can get done in a day (in case you’re wondering it’s 4 hours). Dividing their days up into a string of 60 or 90 minute distraction-free chunks, staff get their top priorities done and dusted. Their motto is ‘working more is never the answer’—your focus should be on managing your energy.
Workplaces that bring together the optimum design of space supported by the right technological tools and business practices, become a worker’s destination of choice. It’s part of the reason why ‘workations’ (yes, a fusion of work and vacation) have taken off in Japan. Today’s office is now a figurative place where you can both give what you want and get what you need.
What was once an aspiration for finding that perfect work-life balance has now become an aspiration for cultivating a colorful work-life integration.
This article first appeared for Quartz at Work