The Higher Ed Workplace Blog

Flexible Work Is the Future of Work — Seizing the “New Normal” for Increased Engagement and Productivity

This post was contributed by Bryan Garey, vice president and chief human resources officer at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University.

A transformation of the workplace is taking place right before our eyes. From pandemic-driven urgency, workplaces are succeeding in meeting both customer expectations and employee needs through creative approaches that have redefined where, when and how work is accomplished.

Yet, buoyed by continued anxiety with the prolonged pandemic, social and political turmoil in the country, and a general sense of uncertainty about the future, many of us are blind to the radical shifts in our approach to work. Those who seize this opportunity to reimagine work will reap the rewards of higher levels of engagement and productivity.

Flexible Work

Flexible work, an approach that allows an individual latitude in where they work, when they work and even how they work, is the recipe for organizations to emerge from the pandemic positioned to retain top talent, recruit the best from across the country and reach new levels of productivity.

Working remotely is certainly part of the equation. A recent Gallup poll showed that more than 50 percent of respondents were “sometimes” or “always” working remotely. A year into the pandemic, many employers are recognizing what research has already discovered: remote employees work harder than their on-site counterparts work and produce more. Moreover, while everyone longs for pandemic relief, employees desire and expect to continue to have remote options well into the future.

Beyond remote work, employees have creatively juggled work schedules, often around many demands that come with family life in a pandemic. Child and elder care have been more difficult with fewer available resources, forcing many employees to shift work time to meet these demands. It is common to see schedules ranging from early morning to late into the night and everything in between. Have an important midday meeting? No problem, simply pop on and off through one of the many online tools.

Caregiving while working, once considered taboo, is part of the daily mix in most households. With schools mostly online, who has not glimpsed a young “Zoom bomber” cross the screen, seen a new puppy jump into a lap or heard the bark of an attentive dog in the background?

The future workplace will include all of these attributes — remote work options, diverse schedules and even allowances for caregiving. The new workplace will require a recognition of the “whole person paradigm,” where work is part of life and not compartmentalized to create the illusion that everything is in a different silo. All workers have become accustomed to it, and the new majority workforce, Millennials and Gen Z, will gravitate to cultures that celebrate this intersection.

New technologies will continue to evolve that support workers on site and off site, collaborating together in real time. Tools like Slack and Microsoft Teams will (eventually) replace email. Conferencing tools, like Zoom and Google Meet, will continue to be a regular part of the workday.

What is the value proposition for this flexibility?

  • Engagement – By all measures, more than two-thirds of today’s workforce are disengaged, either passively or actively. Flexible work increases level of engagement.
  • Productivity – Studies have long shown gains in productivity through remote work. Flexible work, allowing for creative schedules and family/personal obligations will lead to more focused and better work.
  • Retention – Top talent will stay longer where they feel supported through flexible options.
  • Recruitment – Top talent will gravitate toward cultures that support flexibility.

New Focus on Outcomes and Value

Many coworkers will have trouble embracing this new framework. Learning and development can prepare leaders for the new environment. More than ever, specific outcomes will be key for each employee role as part of the position description and performance plan. With flexibility comes new expectations around performance and delivered value. Top performers will shine in this environment and low performers will struggle, providing opportunities for them to either improve or depart.

Celebrating In-Person Opportunities

Flexible work embraces opportunities to come together, to work and learn in-person in a post pandemic workplace. Whether it is experiential learning on a college campus or team brainstorming in a conference room, people need and want opportunities to interact in person. Flexible work is not an alternative to on-site experiences as these will be an integral part of the future workplace.

Flexible work is just that — flexible. Allowing remote work options, supporting alternative and fluctuating schedules, providing opportunities to meet personal and family obligations, and delivering real and specific outcomes to the organization.

Who does not want happier and more productive employees — more successful organizations? The future is now. Will you embrace it?

Related resources:

Future of Work in Higher Education resources page (CUPA-HR members-only resource)

Join the conversation in CUPA-HR’s Future of Work online discussion groupLog in and click the “Join Community” button.