The world has faced an enormous transformation in the way we work and operate our businesses. The pandemic forced us to explore alternative ways of working, and in the years since, we have seen a major shift from the formerly standard practice of working in-office to a hybrid approach combining remote work and in-person working: flexible work. As the Microsoft Canada Women’s Partner Council, we lend our unified voice to this important discussion that will define the next era of how we work.
The Microsoft Canada Women’s Partner Council is a collaboration of female leaders and allies across Canada. For those of us further along in our careers, hybrid working has shown us how many more career opportunities would have been available to us if flexible work policies had been part of the norm. For those of us earlier in our career, we see a different future where tough choices between career advancement and work-life balance do not need to be made. Together, we envision a world where you can get your children to school and make an early meeting; a world where we can craft a career that is ambitious, full of creativity, passion and success and lets us show up as our best selves; a world where we come together with our leaders, our employees, our teams – our people – to create lives we are all proud of and excited to work and live in.
For this initiative, we define flexible work as a style of working where employees have some degree of freedom to customize their work location and, in some cases, the hours they work throughout the day. Though radical in its impact on employee wellness, this change has been and continues to be difficult to manage in organizations that are large, complex, and growing. The Council conducted interviews across its network to understand the challenges and successes of flexible work through the stories of real people – spanning interns to top executives. Some of the most striking sentiments from our interviews champion the ubiquity of flexible work – regardless of industry – and the demand for it generated by employees or even customers. This is a significant transformation in even the most conscious cultures: a new, employee-up approach to defining how and when we work.
But while employees rally for the newfound autonomy, research shows that leaders worry about a decline in employee productivity when away from the office. According to the Work Trend Index 2022 Special Report, 85 per cent of leaders struggle with trusting that their employees are productive, and only 12 per cent of leaders say they have full confidence in their team – a stark contrast to the 87 per cent of employees who actually report feeling productive.
To address the concerns of leaders, who might be tempted to implement activity-monitoring software or micromanaging, it’s important to dig into the disconnect that might be occurring. According to the Work Trend Index, 81 per cent of employees actually need their manager’s help in prioritizing their workload, and less than a third (31 per cent) actually get this guidance. Providing this support can help foster a new dimension of trust in manager-to-employee dynamics, and with 74 per cent of people managers also needing help prioritizing their own work and 80 per cent wanting clarity from senior leadership, providing clarity and direct communication must be modeled by all-up company leaders.
Another concern cited by leaders is getting workers into offices, which have become costly sites that are significantly underutilized under the flexible work model. The Work Trend Index shows that employees are actually more interested in intentional, well-planned in-person time to socialize, and connect with teammates and clients. An important and often understated benefit of flexible work is the heightened value of in-person team days or meetings. As the Work Trend Special Report details, “people come in for each other“. Seventy-three per cent of employees and 78 per cent of business decision makers say they need a better reason to go in than just company expectations, with employees often determining what activities “earn the commute” into the office. In one interview we conducted, the team selected one day out of every two weeks to commit to coming in in-person, giving the team ownership over its collective schedule, and providing positive reinforcement for the effort required for a long commute, earlier start, or exhausting day.
Flexible work is also a powerful instrument for upholding diversity, equity, and inclusion in the workplace. When we consider that working mothers, for instance, still perform a significant portion of household and family duties while also driving their own careers and advancement, it’s no wonder that, according to McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace Report 2022, only ten per cent of women prefer to work in office most of the time. Being able to work flexibly around childcare and household duties, while still tackling workday goals is a game changer for many women. Yet, the ability to ask for flexible work varies significantly according to career stage, and even generations. Some interviewees described only feeling comfortable using a flexible work model after years in their role, while newer members of the workforce have an entirely different experience, with flexible work starting so early in their career.
McKinsey’s Women in the Workplace Reports for 2022 and 2023 also address the impact of flexible work on marginalized groups and intersectional identities. Women of color, LGBTQ+ women, and women with disabilities are disproportionately affected by discrimination, as well as facing more barriers to leadership and advancement. Flexible work provides these groups with the opportunity to choose their working environment, creating a valuable level of psychological safety, offering protection from discriminatory behavior, and supporting a healthy personal life without sacrificing career ambitions. Additionally, the ability to work from home even partially can make it easier to manage mobility issues, chronic pain, and mental-health conditions, compared to being in an office full-time. But there is a lot of work to be done; the McKinsey report indicates that companies are neither providing adequate training for managers to promote inclusion nor recognizing these efforts when undertaken.
None of these challenges should be surprising: remote work was introduced very suddenly in response to the pandemic, with few companies having the expertise needed to handle the change. As one of our interviewees said, “it is the new social contract between employee and employer”, and navigating this social contract requires direct communication, clarity, and good people management. Supporting flexible work can also be an important step for companies developing their DEI strategy, which we will explore in subsequent discussions. Regardless of how polarizing the opinions on flexible work might be, it is important to explore how to make flexible work structures sustainable for any company, and make all workers feel empowered and full of purpose.