Crystal balls have a poor track record. But when it comes to the way people work, we can be certain that in many ways the future will bear little resemblance to the past.

Work practices that seemed unthinkable yesterday don’t raise an eyebrow today. Many of the jobs that humans did for ages are now encroached upon by automation, machine learning, artificial intelligence, robots and cobots.

That’s certainly not to suggest that people aren’t necessary. Quite the contrary. But it is to say that people need to challenge most of the assumptions that have been entrenched in the workplace for generations—some even for centuries.

For insightful, research-based perspective on issues that affect billions of people in every imaginable industry, we can turn to How the Future Works: Leading Flexible Teams to Do the Best Work of Their Lives.

With lots of real-world examples and pertinent hard data, Brian Elliott, Helen Kupp, and Sheela Subramanian provide actionable advice on how to lead and manage effectively in our new work-from-anywhere world. The co-authors are executives at Future Forum, a consortium focused on workplace practices and sponsor of a quarterly survey of 10,000+ knowledge workers around the globe.

As Yogi Berra famously said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.” Helen Kupp and Sheela Subramanian explain why—and how.

Rodger Dean Duncan: What have the pandemic and its associated disruptions taught us about traditional 9-to-5 work routines?

Helen Kupp: For most office workers, the traditional 9-to-5 routine stopped working long ago, but we kept this routine because it was just how work was done. The silver lining to the pandemic is that it gave us all a chance to reinvent new routines––out of necessity as everything moved remote or for many who had to manage childcare and work at the same time.

Has this reset been tough to navigate? Absolutely. But we have a golden opportunity to redesign work. Because of these disruptions, more companies and people are willing to experiment and throw out traditional norms. That’s what it’s going to take to make flexible work successful. Ultimately, flexibility is what employees crave. Our recent research shows that 79% of workers want a voice in how that flexibility takes shape.

Duncan: What old habits and mindsets do you expect will be the hardest for many people to abandon while adjusting to the new workplace?

Helen Kupp

Kupp: The need for work to happen in meetings. For schedule flexibility to really work, we have to break down some basic meeting habits that we’ve settled into at work. That’s the only way you don’t have a calendar that’s overpacked. You have to ask yourself and your team: Do we really need to meet?

We’re finding across companies and our own team that there are so many instances where we can reduce the need for a live meeting, or at least, reduce the number of people who need to attend. Weekly updates? Send that in a Slack channel. Brainstorming sessions? Get some pre-read and pre-work done and shorten time together to be focused on meaty discussion and debate. You’ll find that the discussion and the diversity of ideas can actually be richer when you do.

Duncan: You say that while flexibility is not a panacea for all workplace issues, it’s a major step in the right direction if done right. What are your cautions regarding evolution to the future of work?

Sheela Subramanian: Proximity bias, which is favoritism toward people who are located in the office, has always been an issue in workplace culture. Early in my career, I was praised for being the first in, last to leave as a measure of my worth to the business. Proximity bias continues to be a risk in the new era of flexible work: those who want flexibility are women, employees of color, and working parents, whereas those who want to go back into the office full-time from 9-to-5 tend to be executives, male, and white employees. If leaders continue to rely on outdated performance management techniques, such as numbers of days or hours in the office or speed of response to an email, the gains we have seen with workplace equity will be erased when it comes to career mobility and access.

It’s critical that leaders set the tone from the top. Equity also needs to be a central point of the flexible work principles and guardrails leaders set for their organizations. Leaders need to adjust their own behavior, too! I encourage executives to be the last ones back into the office, rather than the first, and serve as the primary example for the principles that they set.

Duncan: When you use the term “flexible work,” what exactly do you mean?

Kupp: We often get too focused on “days in the office” when thinking about flexibility, but time matters more than place. People want location flexibility of course (79% in our research), but almost everyone (94%) wants schedule flexibility. Here’s why: You can still fall back into the old routine of back-to-back meetings from 9-to-5 whether you’re working in the office or working from home. So, many of us know how that feels—not very productive, and certainly not feeling very balanced. Our research shows that workers without schedule flexibility have significantly poorer employee experience scores and are 2.6 times as likely to look for a new job in the next year.

Instead, schedule flexibility means being more intentional about what work needs to be done live versus what can be done offline and asynchronous. Creating this kind of flexibility and digital-first approach gives me the flexibility to pick up my son from daycare at 3:00 PM without feeling like I’m going to drop the ball on meetings or decisions. For others, it might look like starting your day at 10:00 AM because you run in the mornings.

Duncan: What impact does flexible work have on things like recruitment and retention of talent employee engagement, and productivity?

Sheela Subramanian

Subramanian: Based on our research, flexibility ranks second only behind compensation when it comes to job satisfaction. And of those dissatisfied with the current levels of flexibility, 71% are open to looking for a new opportunity in the next year! Some call the current employment crisis as “The Great Resignation.” I see it as “The Great Rethink.” Employees are rethinking the role of work in their lives. The question of “How does my life fit into work” has shifted to “How does work fit into my life?” I don’t see that trend going away.

Our research shows the positive impact of flexible work on both productivity and satisfaction. Flexibility is not just about time and place—it’s about choice. Employees want to be trusted by their leaders to do what’s best for their organizations and for themselves.

Duncan: In creating support and alignment around flexible work, what are the first assumptions leaders should challenge?

Kupp: One of the biggest points of pushback we hear from executives is that you can’t build relationships without being face to face

First, this assumption just isn’t supported in the data. We’ve actually seen a sense of belonging increase for teams who have been working remotely over the last two years.

Second, we talk about “flexible work” not “remote work” because we believe there is value to coming together as a team. We’ve seen that teams have used the “onsite” as the new “offsite” where they coordinate a few days or even a week together in the office at a time to work, to plan, and to reconnect with each other. The difference is that rather than seeing the office as the only way to build relationships, it’s now just one tool in the toolbox. Instead, teams are using technology (e.g. Donut) and other creative and intentional ways to help build connections—on their teams, across organizations, and across geographies.

Duncan: How should the deployment of resources be adjusted to accommodate—and “normalize”—flexible work?

Subramanian: Leaders need to take this shift as an opportunity to reskill managers. Middle managers are in a tricky position. Many don’t have the network and autonomy of the executive or the community of the individual contributor. Most have not been trained to lead distributed teams. Middle managers are struggling across the employee experience. Managers need to shift from being gatekeepers to coaches. Their employees are expecting transparency, empathy, and psychological safety. So, leaders need to make sure they are prepared and willing to deliver on those expectations.

Beyond traditional training, there are three areas that leaders can invest in today: coaching, feedback, and recognition. As a manager and leader, my weekly call with my coach is a form of self-care. Coaching provides managers the outlet to get feedback and guidance around tricky issues or moments of doubt. Structured, consistent feedback empowers managers to understand what’s going well and their areas for development.

Duncan: How should leaders involve their people in the transition to flexible work?

Subramanian: Most leaders have not been trained to say “I don’t know.” Turns out, that’s what employees want! Employees who don’t feel like their leaders are being transparent are four times more likely to look for new opportunities in the next year. First things first, build channels to communicate with your employees and get more comfortable saying “I need your help” or “We’re still figuring this out!”

Transparency, however, is not one-way. Two-thirds of leaders are not including their employees in their future of work planning process, and that’s a problem. Two-way transparency is what employees expect.  Leaders need to bring in input from individuals across teams, locations, and backgrounds as they navigate this new way of working. “Ask me anything” channels, town halls, and listening tours are all ways to foster dialogue beyond the regular survey. People want to be trusted and feel heard, and it’s on leaders to find the most effective ways to create that culture and environment.

Duncan: In transitioning to flexible work, what kind of resistance should leaders expect, and how should they manage the naysayers?

Kupp: Despite the outcomes we’ve seen across companies in the last two years, we still hear the concern about how and if flexible work can really work. Many of the common concerns we hear just aren’t rooted in data. For example, for the question “But how will I know my people are working and being productive?”—our research (and for many of us, our own experience with our teams) shows that productivity is actually higher for people who have flexibility.

But for the best way to manage naysayers, I think Helena Gottschling (CHRO at Royal Bank of Canada) has the best tactic here which is basically turning the question back to get people to check their assumptions. For the question above, she suggests asking leaders: “How did you know they were productive before?” Oftentimes they’ll find that the answers for in-office work are no clearer or better.

Duncan: How does (and should) a flexible work environment impact the way teams operate?

Kupp: When a team is working on different schedules and locations, coordination and collaboration have to become a lot more intentional. Teams in a flexible work environment need to be more explicit about how they work together. For example, our team uses a team-level agreement to document norms like “core collaboration hours” from 10-to-3 PST where we’re all available for live conversations and meetings, with the rest of the day reserved for heads-down focused work.

Documenting decisions and sharing discussions back into virtual spaces is also critical in keeping the team on the same page. Both of these things are good team practices, but in a flexible environment they become even more essential to the success of the team.

Duncan: What are the keys to maintaining high levels of accountability in a flexible work environment?

Subramanian: Traditional corporate culture embraces the “time is money” approach. The more hours you work, the more time you spend on the road, or the speed at which you respond to a message reflects your commitment to the team. But those measures are not a way to measure value.  Being productive should not be about the amount of time you spend in front of your computer. That mentality creates a burnout culture.

To truly embrace a flexible working environment that still has accountability at its core, leaders need to refocus their organizations around outcomes, instead of inputs. By prioritizing results instead of activity, leaders can steer their teams away from the unhealthy “hustle culture” that’s contributing to record rates of attrition, while maintaining accountability.

Duncan: In the new world of flexible work, how will organizations need to reimagine their headquarters?

Kupp: Throughout our research, we have seen how important a digital-first approach is to making schedule flexibility work, whether that’s documenting decisions on a team or being creative about building connections virtually.

In the same vein, companies also need to reconceptualize their idea of headquarters. It shouldn’t merely be a building, but instead leaders need to make the digital space their new headquarters so that people can access information, opportunity, and each other no matter where or when they are working.

Duncan: What will all of this require of future leadership development?

Subramanian: The future of work is about trust. Rather than focusing on “getting people back into the office,” leaders themselves need to take a step back and refocus on how they can provide a more fulfilling work experience. Leadership is people-centric: moving forward, it’s about giving your employees autonomy, investing in their mastery, and providing them with purpose in their everyday work.

This column was first published by Forbes, where Dr. Duncan is a regular contributor.


Rodger Dean Duncan