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Corporate responsibility and inclusion

Will the current public health crisis push organizational cultures to normalize workplace flexibility?

Natalie Runyon  Director & Head of the Talent Platform at Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute

Natalie Runyon  Director & Head of the Talent Platform at Thomson Reuters Legal Executive Institute

Many organizations had workplace flexibility policies, but at many of these employers, there was a disconnect between the policy and how accepting the organizational culture was of the practice.

Up until a few weeks ago, it was not uncommon for lawyers and CPAs to understand the unwritten norm of being present in the office was required for good work performance and for career advancement. Indeed, for many early career lawyers and tax professionals, the reality that gets ingrained in them is that to get ahead in Corporate America, you have to arrive before the boss in the morning and leave after the boss goes home.

Yet, we have been hearing regularly for the last decade about the benefits of flexible work. Indeed, the Society on Human Resource Management predicted “telecommuting was the way of the future” in a report published in 2008; and research from 30 years ago also noted the benefits of flexible hours on employee attrition.

Flexible work typically has been framed as a working mom or Gen Y issue. Working mothers who pursued working from home or a modified work schedule were assumed, by and large, to no longer be ambitious or serious about upward mobility within the organization. At the same time, many organizations normalized flexible work policies because of the push from the Millennial generation, but the practice in many workplaces continued to have a stigma.

Despite the mandates of shutting down non-essential workplaces for weeks at a time, the current pandemic crisis has a small silver lining — the ability for millions of workers of all ages and backgrounds across the globe to experience the benefits of working flexibly and remotely. Only now the proponents of the mindset “if you are not at work, you are not working” potentially also are experiencing these same benefits.

Could this be the trigger to institutionalize flexible work and truly make remote work and flexibility culturally accepted in organizations where there has been an unwritten norm that penalized workers who used it?

Or, as one magazine posed the question: “Can your organization be empathetic, compassionate, accommodating, flexible, and provide a sound technological infrastructure for workers suddenly removed from their physical offices?” Many think so…

Permanency of the ‘new normal’

Seemingly overnight, the pandemic has shifted working patterns for millions of people, and many organizations are expecting it to transform how their employees work permanently. Millions of individuals will get to experience multiple days in a row of working without commuting long distances and the benefit of being close to home when a family member is sick. Moreover, employees may not want to return to the office once the mandates are lifted. The chance for many to reset their expectations in terms of how they work on such a large scale is unprecedented.

In fact, several leaders have made big predictions. Paul Miller, the CEO and co-founder of the Digital Workplace Group, states that he thinks there is a “consensus that this a fundamental shift in how work gets done.” Describing it as the “new normal” versus “returning to normal,” Miller notes the incomplete picture of what the “new normal” will look like, but he is 100% sure that how work gets done now won’t be the same as it was before.

Matt Mullenweg, CEO of Automattic, which owns WordPress and Tumbler, was quoted recently saying that “COVID-19 could cause [a] permanent shift towards home working”, adding the situation presents the opportunity for many organizations to build a culture that allows for “long-overdue work flexibility.”

Workplace cultures put to the test

Remote work is “a chance to automate, remove waste, and make things better for employees in an organization,” says Sonu Batra and Kai Andrews, in a recent article in BenefitNews.com.

To succeed in the new normal, organizations will need to foster team collaboration and support. At the same time, the ability of executives and managers to adapt quickly probably has never been more critical at any time in the last decade. Certainly, there is a huge need for every worker to deploy all five senses of tuning in to our individual and collective humanity. More specifically, this could include:

Testing the resiliency of the organizational culture — The potentially extended nature of this crisis will determine the strength of company culture. The need for empathy and understanding on a massive scale will indeed be required, along with the likely extended period of working remotely, dealing with feelings of isolation, and the fear of the virus, depending on where employees are. “The onus will be on leadership and people managers to take measures to support employees thrust into working in a way many wouldn’t choose,” say Digital Workplace’s Miller.

Indeed, many workers are forced to adapt to a complex situation on top of having their work situations upended. For example, many parents who have white collar jobs and young children are having to take on a greater role in their children’s learning because of school closures — and they have to balance this with the responsibility of working productively. Still, there are others who have ill or aged loved ones that they cannot visit in the hospital or travel long distances to take care of because of the shelter in place mandates.

Managers acting as catalysts for employee support — With large swaths of workers dealing with a combination of the aforementioned situations for multiple weeks, managers and supervisors need to acknowledge that listening to these employees is a key component of the glue that can keep the company’s culture together. Revealing their own struggles and showing their own humanity can go a long way in making direct reports feel comfortable in letting their own guard down.

Checking in one-on-one with each employee and demonstrating a softer leadership style are also critically important during extended periods of stress and in an environment where drastic changes have occurred, especially in how work is getting done.

Employees needing to stay connected to peers — Individual contributors also need to proactively reach out and stay connected with peers and colleagues. The human side of remote work is more important than ever, and deeper understanding of what one another are going through enhances relationships. It is also a great tool for continuing to keep internal and external connections warm and for advancing one’s own career.

When this crisis inevitably passes, the “new normal” will be different in every organization, but one thing that is very likely to remain for many is that some form of workplace flexibility will be normalized within organizational cultures.

Jennifer Christie, head of human resources at Twitter, reportedly agrees. “People who were reticent to work remotely will really thrive,” Christie says. “Managers who didn’t think they could manage teams that were remote will have a different perspective. I do think we won’t go back.”