Why flexible working calls for a change of management mindset

Empowering employees to ‘own’ their work and be judged on outcomes rather than inputs could be the key to improving productivity and strengthening engagement in hybrid workforces

Dan Price, the Seattle CEO known for cutting his own pay to fund increasing the minimum salary at his firm, Gravity Payments, to $70,000 (£56,000), revealed on Twitter last October that he’d asked his employees where they wanted to work. 

The poll he’d asked them to complete offered three options: HQ, hybrid or home. Only 7% indicated that they were keen to return to the office full time, while 31% preferred the hybrid option. The remaining 62% wanted to work remotely. 

His response? “Sounds great. Do whatever you want… As a CEO, what do I care? If you get your work done, that’s all that matters.” 

The results of Price’s survey seem to be roughly in line with the preferences of the global workforce. The latest studies suggest that many employees, having had a taste of remote working, aren’t keen to return to HQ full time, even though this is what many employers would prefer. 

“Our data shows that employees expect to be offered hybrid working. They will leave, or not join an employer in the first place, if that’s not available,” reports Nick Gallimore, director of innovation at business software provider Advanced. 

“This poses a major problem for organisations that want to retain key staff. They must think very carefully before, say, proposing pay cuts for remote employees. Such measures look as though they’ll prove deeply unpopular.” 

Finding effective new ways to measure remote working

Such findings suggest that employers could be setting themselves up for a fall if they cling on to the command-and-control approach of office-based work. They also indicate that firms urgently need to find effective new ways to measure remote workers’ contributions. 

A research report published by EY after the UK’s first nationwide Covid lockdown was lifted in 2020, Physical Return and Work Reimagined Study, found that 49% of the 700-plus employers it had polled were already looking to do so.

“As businesses struggle with the great resignation and a battle for talent, shifting to focus on workforce output and satisfaction is a must,” says Nicola Downing, CEO of IT consultancy Ricoh Europe. 

“A more task-based approach empowers people to work flexibly and it shows that they’re trusted to get the job done. Organisations could then look at introducing certain ‘mutual’ hours where colleagues work at the same time in the same place to promote collaboration.” 

Good managers not only establish expectations and gives employees a voice in the process; they also help people to understand how their role expectations align with team and organisational objectives

Price’s reaction to the findings of his poll also highlights the fact that many business leaders have come to accept that much of what a given employee is achieving isn’t apparent from looking at their time sheet. It’s made them realise why there was so much dissatisfaction with the way we worked before the pandemic. 

Engaging with hybrid working means that companies are becoming flatter and more dispersed, with a less visible workforce. Their focus when measuring performance therefore needs to shift to a task-based model of outcomes, such as customer satisfaction or time to market.

Understanding outputs as a measure of productivity

The best way for organisations to understand output is to apply high-quality performance management methods, according to Gallimore. He argues that one of the problems afflicting many firms in this respect is a lack of clarity on what outcomes are most important to them and then articulating how each person’s individual goals feed into achieving these. 

“If each employee has clear goals that define expectations of their output and are linked to organisational objectives, this will free the organisation to empower people in terms of where and when they work,” Gallimore says. “This way, measuring output becomes a lot easier. If your process is agile enough, you’ll find that it can really drive that sense of empowerment.”

This is key to the success of an outcome-focused hybrid working policy, he adds. Rather than dictating to people when they need to attend the office, employers can trust them to decide for themselves according to the goals they’re aiming to achieve. 

Gallimore cites the process of inducting new recruits as an example. Although firms’ experiences during the Covid lockdowns have shown that it can be done remotely, many people feel that things can be missed this way, so it’s often better to complete the process in person at HQ. Under an outcome-focused approach, this is a tangible task that can be left up to a manager and their team to choose where and when to do it, leaving other stakeholders in the organisation to judge how successful that decision was. 

Sheela Subramanian is co-founder and vice-president of the Future Forum, a research consortium backed by Slack Technologies. She believes that it’s “critical that leaders move from activity to outcomes when measuring performance. The first step is being really clear with your team by defining what ‘good’ looks like. This will be a mix of quantitative and qualitative outcomes. There can be potential for ambiguity when one balances the two, so it’s important for leaders to share examples of success.” 

According to research by Gallup, almost half of all employees start their working day without a clear idea of what they’re expected to achieve. This is quite a troubling finding for an office-based workforce, but it becomes even more problematic in situations where employees are more widely distributed. 

This places even more responsibility on their managers to set clear objectives, according to Dr Adam Hickman, senior workplace strategist at Gallup. 

“Good managers not only establish expectations and gives employees a voice in the process; they also help people to understand how their role expectations align with team and organisational objectives,” he says. “When employees have this sense of purpose, their engagement soars, even when they’re working at a distance.” 

Goals also need to be aligned with tangible outcomes to make it crystal-clear to everyone what progress looks like, Hickman adds. 

“Everyone likes to have something to show for their hard work, but this can be especially helpful for hybrid workers when you can’t always see the tasks they complete each day in person,” he says. 

Focusing on outcomes in this way should also help hybrid workers to organise their time better, as they’ll be able to quantify how much work a particular task is likely to require. This should then enable them to achieve a better work/life balance, which will again make for a happier workforce, according to Gallimore. 

“What people want from their employer has changed significantly over the past few years. In particular, there’s been a real increase in demand for a better work-life balance,” he says. “By helping employees to clearly understand the outputs that are important to the business, you can free up enough choice around those outputs – for example, where, when and how people prefer to work – to enable them to find the balance they’re looking for.” 

The opportunity to engage with hybrid working not only liberates employees; it frees organisations from the traditional office-hours metric of productivity, which was at best myopic and at worst a serious limiter to business growth and success.