Workplace flexibility: is it a privilege or a right? Over the past few years, we’ve witnessed work transform beyond ways we thought possible. At first, it was out of necessity. The Covid-19 pandemic forced people to work from home, navigate complicated schedules, and, in some cases, take increased sick or personal leave. Many companies adapted to these challenges, offering a more flexible work environment to ease the burdens. But on the other side of the crisis, have these flexible work policies stuck?
We no longer have to work from home or quarantine at the slightest sniffle; however, what’s certain is that being able to adapt our work schedules around our personal lives permanently shifted our mindset. Now that people have experienced the possibility of achieving productive work outside the traditional 9-to-5 workplace, many don’t want to return to doing things as they were before.
A misalignment between employee expectations and corporate reality
According to 2022 data from Stagwell, while 62% of respondents say that working for a workplace with flexible working hours matters to them, only 47% of companies say they offer them. The research shows that the same type of discrepancy exists regarding a flexible work location, too; 51% of workers value the ability to work from wherever, while just 40% of companies offer it.
So when you’re sitting with a hiring manager who might be trying to entice you with a company’s flexible work policies, how do you assess what’s legitimate and what is otherwise bullshit? To find out, we spoke with Juliana Rabbi, a recruiter-turned-career coach with over 15 years of experience in human resources and recruitment in multinational companies and over nine years working remotely. She helps us uncover the true nature of workplace flexibility, equipping you with strategies to explore just how flexible a potential workplace really is.
What makes a workplace flexible?
Flexibility is a vague term by its very nature and could mean different things to different people, so let’s start with a definition. According to Rabbi, a flexible workplace encompasses a few different concepts and values, much of which has to do with the overall culture, rather than policies. They include:
- Offering non-linear working hours: A flexible workplace should let employees decide when they start working, take a break, and what time they finish their day. “A flexible workplace should embrace a non-linear schedule and focus more on the outcome, instead of the working hours,” Rabbi says.
- Building trust: “When managers trust their employees, it’s much easier to offer the flexibility that is required from both sides,” Rabbi says, noting this could look like letting an employee take the day off to take care of a sick child without making it a big deal; it also means trusting an employee will work the necessary hours to finish an important project.
- Being growth-oriented: Rabbi says that a flexible work environment should provide real opportunities to learn, develop new skills, share experiences, and work on exciting projects.
- Cultivating a friendly atmosphere: Employees should feel safe to share their opinions and ideas in a flexible work environment, and Rabbi notes this starts at the top. “Employees are encouraged by leadership to speak up, and their ideas are considered and implemented whenever possible.”
Why does workplace flexibility matter in today’s working world?
Traditional work mentalities used to separate work from our personal lives, but with technological advancements making it possible to be productive from anywhere, at any time, that’s less and less the case.
“Work is not a place, it’s something that we do,” Rabbi begins. “Professionals have been working remotely for years, but during the pandemic, it became more widely accepted globally. Having flexibility at work allows you to take care of your career and still take care of other areas of your life, instead of having to choose.”
Rabbi also believes that the more flexible a company is, the more loyal its employees will be. “When an employee feels respected and recognized, they’re more likely to remain in the company for longer—offering them flexibility is a great way to accomplish that,” she points out.
What questions can a candidate ask during the interviewing process to assess the flexibility of a workplace?
Some companies might use the term “flexible” as a way to attract top talent, but their definition of flexible could be vastly different from yours. If you find yourself in an interview with a potential employer using flexibility to draw you in, Rabbi outlines some questions that could be useful to ask to assess what flexibility means to them and what to make of the potential answers.
- What does a regular working day look like here? Rabbi flags to watch out for answers that might infer people aren’t really concerned with what time they clock out of work or are spending long days at the office.
- What challenges will a new person on the team potentially face? This will give you insights into how you might adjust to their work culture should you get the role.
- How would you describe the leadership style in this company? Pay attention to any signs of micromanagement, for example, how often leadership will expect you to provide updates on your work.
- How are the working hours established here? Note whether there are set working hours or if they vary, and if you’d be working with team members in different time zones.
- Would you say that this job requires a routine? If yes, then it’s probably not that flexible. It might mean you’re tied to certain hours and to adhere to the 9-to-5 status quo.
What are some red flags that a workplace is not as flexible as it may be selling itself?
Some of the warning signs of a workplace inflating its flexibility aren’t always obvious. They might lurk in the subtle ways in which a company chooses to manage people, communicate, or in how and who they hire. These are the main things that the Rabbi says to watch out for when examining the true nature of a company’s flexibility.
- Micromanagement. “It can be sold as ‘We just want to make sure you feel supported by your manager,’ Rabbi says. In reality, it’s a way to try to control what an employee does. Ask about lines of communication between you and your potential new direct report, how often you need to check in, and the frequency of meetings. This leads to the next red flag …
- There are way too many unnecessary meetings. Rabbi says, “Frequent meetings are another way to micromanage.” She notes again to watch out for language rooted in outdated processes, like ‘this is the way we’ve always done it.’”
- Lack of processes and guidelines. Get. It. In. Writing. Rabbi notes that some companies might conflate ‘flexibility’ with having loose rules. “In reality, it only creates confusion and extra work,” she states.
- Urgent requests outside of working hours. Ask what the expectation is around answering emails outside of working hours and if you’re expected to reply immediately.
- Gender discrepancy and a general lack of diversity. Pay attention to who has a seat at the leadership table and whether flexibility would have the same meaning for everyone in charge. “If only men occupy the leadership and management positions, this is often a giveaway for other signs of lack of flexibility,” Rabbi says.
- Employee suggestions and feedback are disregarded. Inquire how the company gathers and implements feedback from the team. After all, workplace flexibility should be about them; if a company is listening but not taking action, this could serve as a warning sign.
What can a candidate do once they’re in the job and they realize they were misinformed about the company’s flexibility?
You went through the interview process and nothing seemed amiss. Now you’re in the role, and it turns out that things aren’t so flexible after all. Perhaps you can roll with it if the job is going well, but if you were counting on flexibility based on other things happening in your life, you might need to speak up.
Rabbi says that if you feel comfortable having an open and honest conversation, start by speaking with your direct manager. “Having a conversation with the HR department might help, especially if you have some conditions written in your contract, and those conditions need to be followed,” she adds.
She also notes that the lack of flexibility might be role-specific and that looking at other departments, projects, teams, or clients could also be an option to move away from the lack of flexibility but remain in the company. Opting for this would require a formal conversation with your manager and/or HR anyway, so perhaps see first what can be done in your current position.
Finally, if none of these suggestions work, Rabbi says it might be worth reflecting upon whether you should stay at the company. “If there is no openness or real interest for the company to increase the flexibility level and keep its word about what was promised, this might not be the right work environment for you,” Rabbi affirms.
Key takeaways: How to find out how flexible a company actually is in an interview
Are a company’s flexible work policies in reality a flop? If being in a flexible workplace is a top priority during your job hunt, you’ll need to get to the bottom of it. Here are the main things to remember when assessing how flexible a company actually is in an interview.
- Ask the right questions. Inquire about the basic things that would help determine a workplace’s flexibility, like their working hours, the team and where people are located, meeting cadence, leadership style, and what the average day-to-day looks like.
- Request specific examples. Once you have an overview of the workplace dynamics, try to dig into what it looks like in practice and whether policies related to workplace flexibility are supported by clear and written policies.
- Look at the bigger picture. Take note of who is making the rules. If all of the leadership is the same gender, race, and age, then flexible work policies are likely to reflect their definition of flexibility. Diversity in the leadership team is a crucial reflection of workplace flexibility.
- Determine what workplace flexibility means to you. Ultimately, everyone has their own interpretation of what makes a workplace flexible or not. The most important thing is to find an environment that suits your needs and lifestyle so you can put your best work forward.
Photo: Welcome to the Jungle
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