From office blocks to co-working cafes, bedroom pop-up desks to hotel lobbies, it feels like location flexibility has been mastered or, at the very least, explored in the last few years.
The post-Covid realisation that many jobs only require a laptop and stable internet connection has been an important step towards increased employee autonomy. This shift in both attitude and policy has also been effective in increasing employee happiness and productivity.
One study conducted by the International Workplace Group found that “85% of businesses confirm that productivity has increased in their business because of greater flexibility.”
But this transition has not been a linear one.
The longevity of “the everywhere office” is under scrutiny, largely from senior management, some of whom maintain a relatively cynical view of home working - but are they at risk of losing talent?
What does location flexibility really mean?
Location flexibility is a concept that gives working professionals the autonomy to work remotely from their organisation's headquarters or offices; it's often implemented as a policy by companies that want to promote true flexibility.
In 2020, Julia Hobsbawm coined the phrase “the nowhere office”. The idea is that location flexibility is a core driver of employee happiness and, ultimately, business growth would benefit from it.
The ‘everywhere office’ is an amplification of that sentiment. It supports the idea that most locations can be transformed into productive working environments if that’s the intention. So, whether employees want to work from home, their office, other public spaces, or even other countries, location flexibility is all about one thing - choice.
But not all businesses believe in the concept of flexible working. Recently, we’ve been witnessing a boomerang effect from some senior teams who are keen to reduce working flexibility back to pre-pandemic times.
Already this year, we’ve seen pushback from organisations such as Amazon and JP Morgan, who are asking employees to return to the office. Elon Musk has also pushed back on remote work - who could forget his infamous rants on Twitter?
In January, Bob Iger, CEO of Disney, followed suit, forcing all remote workers back to the office at least 4 days a week, stating:
“... in a creative business like ours, nothing can replace the ability to connect, observe and create with peers that comes from being physically together, nor the opportunity to grow professionally by learning from leaders and mentors”.
Would Disney employees agree? Or does this reflect old-school assumptions of working culture and progression?
Either way, there does seem to be a growing disconnect between business leaders and workers. But why is there such resistance to flexible working?
The office argument
Flexible working is not a black-and-white issue. Therefore, to argue that there are no benefits to office work would be disingenuous.
Some would argue that it can be difficult to build and maintain relationships with colleagues without the ability to interact face-to-face. Miscommunication can also occur more easily in a remote working environment, with fewer opportunities for informal interactions and nonverbal cues.
Another challenge could be a lack of structure that comes with remote working. Employees may find it hard to establish a routine and stay motivated without the structure of a traditional office environment. This can lead to either procrastination, lack of focus or overworking.
However, these challenges aren’t simply due to not being in the office. Rather they are a result of employers not adequately supporting workers from home - we know this because we’ve seen fully remote companies, like Zapier and GitLab, thrive.
We see this to a greater extent within start-ups, which often operate a fully remote system because they never had an office to start with. Instead, they opt for remote communication or the occasional WeWork meetup. We see this for many reasons, for instance, many start-up cultures live and breathe agility. Many source talent worldwide, and in that sense, having an office in one country would be impractical.
Some companies, like Slack, approach office work with true flexibility. As the former CEO, Stewart Butterfield says, and CNBC reports;
“Slack is “remote first”, Butterfield said, "but not remote only”
Companies who want to avoid the above challenges may need to invest in digital tools that support remote communication as well as provide informative resources on how to structure your time at home.
The power balance between employee and management
According to a July 2022 study of 13,382 global workers by consulting firm McKinsey & Company, 40% said workplace flexibility was a top motivator in whether they stayed in a role.
It’s hardly surprising.
Remote or hybrid working offers numerous benefits, such as increased flexibility, improved work-life balance, and reduced commuting time, and for companies, it allows them to source global talent.
The pandemic also had an impact, with lots of workers moving away from large cities, which now makes constant commuting much more expensive and, in some cases, unaffordable.
The reasons for resisting flexible working are complex and often dependent on the sector and functions of a role. The resistance from particular leaders is equally complex, whether they fear a loss of control, are less agile in their leadership, or use company culture as a guise - there’s no way to forget the infamous pizza party gag.
As Julia Hobsbawm writes: “implementing successful hybrid or remote models will require significant shifts in leadership skills.”
Adoption of these skills requires a degree of bargaining power. In a candidate-scarce market, as we witnessed in early 2022, potential employees have more control, and businesses are more likely to tempt them with promises of flexibility.
This year, with substantial economic pressures causing global layoffs, candidates may feel like they have less to bargain with, given the hot competition.
Another important reason for the rise in reducing flexibility is ‘flex-shaming’.
There’s an impression that remote workers are less dedicated, aren’t working as hard, or even citing “workplace culture” as a reason for workers to return to the office - something which has been heavily mocked on social media.
Many of these sentiments are culturally ingrained, making them incredibly difficult to dismantle. And they can also emerge as microaggressions, which again, makes minimising them challenging.
Only the increased normalisation of flexible working can begin to erode these opinions.
The elephant in the room
A core aspect of flex-shame also resides in the idea that flexible working is a luxury. So, why do some people consider flexibility such a luxury in reference to working?
Because there’s a huge percentage of the workforce where currently flexible working would be a total impossibility. For instance, when we consider nurses, police officers, factory workers - any profession which requires anchoring to a physical location, remote working wouldn’t be possible.
From this, we’ve seen discussions around flexible working create cross-profession resentments, which isn’t healthy or productive discourse for most workers.
Significant emphasis on the not “currently” possible as we may see many roles, such as factory workers, transform with the development of AI, which may evolve into managing tech from home.
However, the core point is that flexible working should not be labelled as a luxury, perk, or benefit; it should be a fundamental right.
What’s the right answer?
Ultimately, individual companies will decide for themselves whether investing in flexible location policies suits them.
However, they shouldn’t be surprised when they receive push-back from unhappy employees, which could affect retention rates or recruitment, especially with the rise of the Gen X workforce.
For companies that want employees to have high autonomy, ensuring you have the necessary tools in place to support remote workers is essential. For example, employers can invest in communication technology to facilitate collaboration and team building. They can also establish clear guidelines and expectations for remote working, such as setting specific working hours and deadlines.
Additionally, regular check-ins and feedback can help to ensure that employees feel supported and engaged.