As we enter a new decade, I recall with some humour and a big shudder the work environment I was in a decade ago. Fixed working hours were stipulated and non-negotiable, clock-watching was the norm, and anxiety befell me if I needed to attend to personal things or my health during the workweek. This was “how things were done” and so we didn’t question it. We also frowned upon colleagues who were late or absent, regardless of their reason. That work environment brings to mind the grey working world depicted in the wonderful animated movie The Little Prince.
Fast-forward to 2020, and just this week, my company has accommodated my personal need to support my two-year-old as he masters the stoicism needed to say goodbye to parents every morning at nursery school. Instead of coming in at 06h30 like normal, I’ve been coming in an hour later and enjoying the supportive questions and concerns for his welfare from my colleagues rather than frowns and moans. Meetings have been shifted out or rescheduled, expectations have been adjusted accordingly, and at the end of the day, my work is still getting done.
There is something to be said for giving adults autonomy on their time. People have their own rhythms for when they are most productive, and they also have their own personal lives that need their attention. Enforcing a fixed working time disempowers people and creates a disengaged employee. It also adds more stress to an already stressful life. Employers must realise that they are not dictators that control their employees’ time, but rather they’re in a partnership with their employees. If employees are not busy worrying about attending to their personal needs, such as the bank, school drop-off or hitting the gym during peak hours, then their employer is getting their full attention and energy. Engaged employees are high-performing employees.
What does it mean for employers to give their employees flexibility and autonomy over their time? Well, it firstly requires trust. For autonomy to work, employees need to be trusted (and trustworthy!) that they can manage their own time and meet the requirements of the job role as expected. Secondly, there needs to be a capability. Some tasks just cannot be done outside of the workplace and some companies cannot have employees working remotely. A factory requires people to be at their station for a defined period, as does a restaurant or a hospital. However, those people still have personal lives outside of work that needs to be respected and, where possible, accommodated without penalty, whether direct or implied.
The 20s are going to be a decade of continually adapting to a rapidly evolving world that requires organisations to respond with employees rather than react to them. Instead of asking “what is best for the company?” perhaps the question should be “how can we make this best for the employee?” If the first two decades of this millennia have taught us anything, it is that a happy employee is a quality employee and one of the ways to ensure employee satisfaction is to enable employee flexibility.