9 to 5 chair in a field

Annie Auerbach is the founder of cultural trend and insight agency, Starling and author of the new book, FLEX: Reinventing Work for a Smarter, Happier Life.

Most of us have had our workdays ‘reinvented’ involuntarily by this pandemic. Is working with a remote team truly the “new normal”? Do 9-to-5 hours even matter anymore? What happens next?

We asked Annie to share a bit of her perspective on things and presented her with three common concerns many business leaders have about the kind of flexibility she recommends in FLEX… 

Annie Auerbach On The Way Work Is Changing

What i want more biz managers to know: Flexible working breeds a culture of motivation, engagement and productivity. It gives you access to the best talent wherever they are and increases retention.

Flexibility is so much more than a reflex to a crisis. It is bigger than the survival instinct of businesses facing precarity. Being flex is about a better future with solidarity and diversity at its heart.

What i want more employees to know: Flexibility itself is more than the flexible working request on paper. It’s deeper than the logistics of how, where and when we work. Our jobs and careers don’t follow a set path — there are ebbs and flows as life throws us curveballs. When we work out how to ‘flex’, we work out how to live, earn money and be happy in a way that suits us and our unique talents.

3 Common Concerns About The New Flexibility

Issue no 1: “With my team working around clock, I’ll have to too. Won’t I lose my own sense of personal boundaries?”

Flexibility and trust go hand-in-hand. Your team may have different hours from each other and from you, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a puppet-master pulling the strings and micro-managing every moment.

Instead deploy a mix of clear communication of expectations coupled with trust in the capabilities of your team to deliver. Trading the nine-to-five for the 24/7 is a massive fail. We need hard edges to our flex, particularly now, or we’ll slip into the burnout from which we were hoping to escape.

Issue no 2: “What if my team gets lazy and we lose track of hard deadlines?”

Employers’ biggest fears about flexible working (that we would all ‘shirk from home’ and productivity would plummet) proved to be groundless in 2020.

Among first time flexers working at home during the lockdown, 68 per cent feel they are either more productive or equally productive. In fact, Microsoft’s data analysis suggests lockdown has seen people working 4 hours a week more. Our biggest challenge won’t be how to motivate our people, but actually how to help them switch off.

Issue no 3: “How will I get responses from my team when I need them most?”

That second part of the question is key: “when you need them most”. Email is a pretty blunt tool. Sometimes we need an immediate response — a yes or a no — and sometimes we need a carefully composed response which may require time and deep focus. We need to establish rules of engagement for communications across different platforms. Think of what would work for your team.

You could set an expectation that certain flagged emails must be responded to within 24 hours. You could agree that text messaging is used for urgent questions. And you need to allow for that deep focus too — how about no meetings between certain hours? TV station Channel 4 in the UK has a company-wide lunch break daily at 12:30-2 pm and ‘Meeting Free Fridays’.

Can you give an ideal example or two of what a flexible team looks like in real life?A flexible team might be spread out geographically, working at different points during the day. There might be no central office, or if there is, the team gathers intentionally for specific working moments (a collaboration session, a team bonding event).

The focus will be on your output rather than the hours you put in. The team will be more diverse — genuine flexibility welcomes those who might be excluded from a macho working culture of long hours and presenteeism. It values their contributions precisely because they are not the status quo, and therefore their perspectives are bound to be fresh, innovative and creative.

A great example I talk about in my book is strategic consultancy, the FAWNBRAKE COLLECTIVE. As founder Amelia Torode said: “We wanted to get rid of as many structures that we felt were getting in the way of doing the work: so no HQ, no email, no hierarchy and no bureaucracy.”

Other fave books on the topic: Brave Not Perfect ,Reshma Saujani; The Joy of Work, Bruce Daisley; Big Magic, Elizabeth Gilbert; The Multi-Hyphen Method, Emma Gannon; The Squiggly Career, Helen Tupper and Sarah Ellis; The Little Black Book, Otegha Uwagba; Can’t Even: How Millennials Became the Burnout Generation, Anne Helen Petersen.

current mantra:  ‘You never change things by fighting the existing reality. To change something, build the new model that makes the existing model obsolete.’ – Buckminster Fuller, American inventor and futurist.

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