Many organizations have focused over the past year on where employees do their work—determining how many days they expect people to go to an office, for example. (That’s behind recent tensions between companies such as Apple and their staff, for example.)
But when asked, some 93% of workers surveyed last year said when they work and how much flexibility they have around that is important.
A book out this week, How the Future Works, is both a manifesto for such a broadened conception of flexible work, where both place and schedule are reimagined, and a detailed playbook for how to best enable it, based on the latest research and case studies.
Flexible work is “about freeing oneself from the outdated notion that work = office and the workweek = 9-to-5,” write the authors, Brian Elliott, Sheela Subramanian, and Helen Kupp, cofounders of Future Forum, a future-of-work consortium launched by Slack. “Instead we can push the boundaries of how we think about the ways in which we can work together and offer people more freedom and autonomy to get things done in ways that suit them better.” (p. 15)
How the Future Works is specific and methodical in its prescriptions, drawing on Future Forum’s own research and the experience of Slack and other organizations at the leading edge of new workplace practices. The book has a particularly useful section addressing what managers need to be doing (the chapters titled “Step 6” and “Step 7”), such as having teams share “personal operating manuals” for how each individual does their best work and focusing on business outcomes when giving feedback. Future Forum’s surveys of the experience of BIPOC workers have been uniquely valuable during the pandemic, and How the Future Works builds on them to recommend inclusive approaches.
The authors propose seven steps to the future of work:
1 - Agree on the purpose and principles behind flexible work. “Purposes may vary somewhat from company to company, but they all come back to addressing one key issue: talent,” they write. “Flexible work helps companies attract top talent. It allows them to recruit from a larger pool of candidates. It helps them engage and retain the talent they already have.” (p. 33) Sample principles include Slack’s “Digital-First doesn’t mean never in person.” Specific norms and policies flow from such purposes and principles.
2 - Create guardrails for behavior. These include organization-wide practices, such as “one screen per person” when there’s a hybrid meeting to ensure a level playing field for anyone remote. Strongly discouraging unnecessary meetings—those which don’t involve debating, discussing, deciding, or development—is another recommended guardrail.
3 - Develop team-level agreements. These are operating manuals that teams draw up to make explicit norms and expectations for flexible working. Establishing “core collaboration hours” is one best practice for teams, fixing a three- or four-hour timespan each day when they can expect colleagues to be able for meetings or quick communications.
4 - Establish a culture of learning. The authors recount how Slack landed on its practices for hybrid meetings through a process of experimentation, with participants eventually setting up laptop stands at each place in conference rooms and using their own screens but a shared in-room audio hookup. They also discuss how Dell wound up ending a policy of letting workers sign off at 2pm on summer Fridays in favor of letting employees individually decide when in the week they wanted that flexibility.
5 - Create a culture of connection from anywhere. This requires effectively making digital platforms the headquarters of an organization, making company-wide online forums the primary place for communication, and sharing online what happens offline, such as by posting recordings of meetings.
6 - Train and support managers. “Here’s the harsh reality: Most of your managers are not equipped to embrace flexible working arrangements or lead distributed teams,” the authors write. “Managers need to shift from gatekeepers who conduct status checks to coaches who lead with empathy.” (p. 130) They propose specific ways that managers can be transparent to build trust, provide clarity through direct feedback, and allow team members to do their best work through equitable practices and boundaries against burnout. Asking “What’s one thing I could be doing to make your life better this week?” is a question they recommend that managers ask each team member.
7 - Focus on the outcomes. Managers have to abandon the mindset of monitoring workers and instead focus on whether they achieve their agreed-upon business goals. In addition, for example, BCG surveys teams regularly on metrics such as “Does our team love working here?” and “Is the work sustainable?” (p. 161)
When presented with concerns about the impacts of flexible work, Elliott, Subramanian, and Kupp recommend answering questions with questions. For example, a response to “How will I know my people are working and being productive?” could be “How did you know they were productive before?”
To be sure:
- The book doesn’t touch on the climate crisis. Surely a vision for how the future works should include discussion of how any transformation of workplaces needs to result in their being more environmentally sustainable as well.
- The authors do a thorough job of debunking most concerns about shifting to flexible work but don’t fully address the argument that young people lose out in training and relationships when they’re not primarily working from an office.
- Some of the recommendations are more easily implemented at a company like Slack with extensive resources, such as the practice of assigning a coach to support every manager. And the book is aimed primarily at knowledge workplaces, rather than those—such as a hotel, manufacturing plant, or hospital—where work must primarily be in-person and on specific schedules.
- Also the digital-first vision of work that the book extolls is one where—surprise!—Slack’s tools are especially relevant. Though, to be fair, the book has limited references to Slack the product itself.
Memorable anecdotes and facts:
- Slack went from having 2% of its engineers working remotely pre-pandemic to nearly 50%. It saw a 70% jump in job applicants for key roles after it allowed location flexibility. Slack sales teams increased the number of sales calls they could do each day thanks to videoconferencing, and Salesforce Zoom customer calls had 25% more c-level client attendance than before.
- Royal Bank of Canada decided that “Proximity still matters” was one of its principles for flexible work. “For the majority, this means residing within a commutable distance to the office,” it told employees. (p. 30) But it left it up to teams how often they gathered and up to employees what distance they could tolerate to commute.
- Slack got rid of the executive floor in its San Francisco offices to signal that its primary headquarters was effectively now online and that executives would primarily be meeting with their teams when they came to the office.
- MURAL, a collaboration-software company, staged an elaborate virtual meeting for its staff in 2020 that simulated a trip around the world and into space, with breakouts where employees needed to interact with colleagues and have them “stamp” virtual passports they all had created.
The bottom line is that if you want to know the latest research-backed practices for how to redesign work, How the Future Works is an excellent guide. It’s specific and thoughtful in its answers to common questions about how to have an inclusive and high-performing flexible workplace. The right answers will surely evolve over time as the global experiment with flexible work plays out and further research is done—but How the Future Works is a great overview of what we know so far.
The handbook for this new era of business doesn’t exist. We’re all drafting our own as we go along—and now we’d like to start doing so together. You can sign up here to receive briefings like this by email.