What Corporate America Doesn’t Get About Flexible Work
It’s not only about *where* we want to work.
There’s more to flexible work than emailing from home.
If anyone knows about the perks and perils of remote work, it’s Sheela Subramanian. As the vice president at Future Forum, a consortium Slack launched in 2020 to create a more “flexible, inclusive and connected” working world, she spends her days thinking about how companies can create more flexible environments. She’s also helped write a book on the topic, Leading Flexible Teams To Do The Best Work of Their Lives.
So if Sheela says we should worry about the risks of remote work, we should probably worry.
“This is something that keeps me up at night, because what we see in our data at Future Forum is that those who want flexibility tend to be working mothers, women, and employees of color. And those who want to go back into the office full-time tend to be male, executives and white employees,” Sheela said in a conversation with me for this newsletter.
Researchers have been warning that proximity bias—a tendency for managers to favor employees who opt for in-person work—could create an environment where remote or hybrid employees get left behind. That could derail generations of progress in the workplace for working moms, women and employees of color, who are more likely to prefer flexible work.
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While some companies are adjusting their strategies to mitigate these risks, some aren’t. And there’s another big thing a lot of corporate leaders don’t get, Sheela says: Employees don’t just want flexibility about where they work; they also want control over when they work. That may be a harder pill to swallow for much of corporate America, where an “always-on” work mentality has prevailed for decades.
So I asked Sheela about all of this. Her answers are illuminating and should be shared with every manager in America who is figuring out how to work more flexibly. I hope you enjoy the conversation below as much as I did:
OK, so let’s start with the good news. What are some of the pros of our more flexible workplace?
One bright spot in the last couple of challenging years is that the workplace has been able to become more inclusive and equitable. We see in the data, for example, that a sense of belonging has gone up for employees of color. We're seeing that both working mothers and working fathers are strongly preferring flexibility, which is one way of getting rid of the mommy track. We've also seen that flexible work is also just a better overall experience for all employees.
What’s the bad news?
We're seeing a reliance on old performance measures. The model employee is still one who is the first in and last to leave, and who sacrifices their health and family time for their job. What I fear about a hybrid or more flexible workplace is that those who choose to go to the office full time are the ones who are going to get access to the opportunities, are going to be able to network with executives and are going to be perceived as a model employee when it comes time for promotions. Whereas those who are working flexibly are going to be passed up for these opportunities, because they're not visible.
Do you think companies recognize this risk? Are they doing anything to fight proximity bias?
Some are. At first, a lot of companies tried a top-down policy, where everyone needed to come to the office three days a week, for example, regardless of what type of work that they do. We're seeing a resistance to those top down policies. Good work is not one-size-fits-all. A lot of companies have shifted from top-down policies to principles, asking, ‘What are the behavioral guardrails we want to see?’ And then empowering their managers to figure out what works best for them and their team. At Slack, we make decisions at the team level about our core working hours, how we want to communicate with one another and how often we want to get together in person. Those team level agreements are also an opportunity for managers to get feedback on what's working and what's not, and to build a working model according to that.
So within companies that have a team level approach to flexibility, do you think managers are doing that?
Yes, some leaders are. It’s really about leading with transparency and trust. And transparency is not just putting all the information on the table. It's admitting, “I don't know. I need your help. We are still figuring it out.” And it’s asking for feedback from employees. That's a new skill for many of us because most leaders, including myself, were trained to know all the answers and be the expert on everything. But employees are increasingly expecting more candor from their leaders.
There’s been a lot of focus on remote work in the media and corporate world. Is there an angle you think is being overlooked right now?
Yes. So much of the conversation about flexibility is focused on how many days employees are coming into the office. It’s about where you work. But our research shows that it’s more important to people when they work. They want schedule flexibility. And when I bring this up, I often get a deer-in-the-headlights look from a leader who says, “No, I need people to work synchronously and according to a schedule.”
What do you tell leaders who say that?
There are a few ways we advise leaders to actually embrace schedule flexibility. One is defining core team work hours—the time the team works synchronously and schedules meetings with each other. On my team, for example, our core hours are from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., but outside of those hours, we can do our focus work whenever it works best for us. It’s way more inclusive because then people can drop off their kids and pick them up from school, go to the dentist appointment they've been putting off for months, or even make time during the day to exercise.
I love this, but I imagine it might be hard at some companies, where employees have too many damn meetings.
It's no secret that the broader cultural issue going on is an over reliance on meetings, but research shows that most meetings are a total waste of time. We recommend that leaders set the example and declare “calendar bankruptcy” and cancel all recurring meetings on their calendar. When a meeting comes back up, question if the meeting was really necessary. It's critical to understand when you need to have a meeting, and when you don’t. If a meeting is to discuss, debate, decide or develop an employee, keep the meeting. If the meeting is a stand-up or status check, cancel that meeting and bring it into your digital solutions, like Slack.
What are some other reasons leaders are reluctant to embrace flexible work?
I often hear, “I need my team back in the office full-time because we need to sit around the whiteboard and brainstorm new ideas. That's the only way we're gonna innovate.” What our research shows is that it's the diversity of voices—and those voices actually being heard—that contributes to innovation. It's not the actual whiteboard or the act of brainstorming. Brainstorming essentially rewards the loudest voices in the room. It doesn't reward the best ideas. A way to shift the brainstorm to something asynchronous is to brainwrite. Say, ‘Hey, we're going to write about this new concept we're developing. Over the next 24 hours, go into this document or virtual whiteboard, and contribute your ideas.’ What we have found is that brainwriting—rather than an in-person, synchronous brainstorm—results in more ideas, better ideas and more inclusion, because people feel like they can contribute regardless of how loud their voice is. That’s just one idea of many. It’s really about: How can we question how work has been done, and figure out more innovative ways of doing it that make it more inclusive?
If I can put you on the hot seat: Sometimes I feel like there’s an “always-on” expectation when using tools like Slack and other instant messengers, and that erodes some of the flexibility of working from home.
Proximity bias can play out in digital channels, as well, if you’re expecting people to respond at all hours. This is where guardrails come in. If you as a manager are saying, ‘Our core hours are between 9 a.m and 1 p.m., and this is when we expect to work synchronously,’ you need to model that behavior as well. This is where the ability to schedule messages for later has been a godsend. It’s also just about setting expectations, in terms of, ‘I do not expect you to respond to everything that I'm saying right away, and I'm going to model that in my own behavior.’ Because we know people are resisting this always-on culture. We’re seeing it play out in the trends. It’s also not a marker of good leadership.
Is there anything else you think managers need to know about remote work, particularly in terms of how it impacts working parents?
Being flexible doesn't mean that you never see each other in person. It’s about being intentional about why you're coming together in person and what you're looking to achieve. Especially for parents and other moms, I think it's really critical for managers to remember that predictability is key when you’re deciding when to meet in-person.
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