The big stretch: Can your business adopt flexible working?

We examine the benefits and drawbacks of flex work

Before the pandemic hit in 2020, there were a handful of companies that were already taking steps to make flexible work a reality. From letting staff dictate their own hours, to allowing a mix of in-office and remote work, employers were starting to give their employees more freedom in hopes of fostering greater job satisfaction. Over the past two years, a growing number of businesses have decided to adopt flexible ways of working, but are discovering that it can be a minefield to establish a structure which doesn’t result in complete chaos.

So we’ve brought in future-of-work writer MaryLou Costa to give some examples of flexible work models, point out their pros and cons, and highlight the companies that are getting flex-work right. Read on to figure out which model might suit your own business best…

Model one: A mix of remote and asynchronous work, a platform that helps companies hire people from pretty much anywhere in the world, has been – as its name suggests – fully remote since it was founded in January 2019. Its senior team is split across Portugal, the Netherlands, the UK, US, Italy, Mauritius and South Africa.

The company has also embedded an asynchronous way of working, which means meetings are kept minimal in favour of written and video documentation, so teams always have the information to hand to focus on their own work. CEO Job Van Der Voort goes as far as to describe the mainstream, meeting-heavy way of working, as “extremely inefficient”.

“As long as you follow a few basic rules, then you can build a company where you don't have to be online at particular hours, so you don't have to worry about time zones as much, and then you can hire anyone from anywhere in the world,” he explains.

The “rules” that Van Der Voort mentions include considering whether a meeting could be replaced by another form of communication, empowering individuals to make decisions, making your work visible to others, using project management and collaboration tools and, most importantly, making time spent together intentional.

Pros: Allows staff to work from anywhere in the world and design their work days around their lifestyles.

Cons: Company culture and building relationships between staff needs to be prioritised so that teams don’t end up feeling isolated and siloed.

Model two: Remote work and established core hours

Well-known cloud storage company Dropbox shifted to a non-linear workday as part of its Virtual First strategy that launched in October 2020. Taking meetings only during daily core collaboration hours of 10am to 12pm and 4pm to 6pm, employees can then organise the rest of their day around their own work and personal commitments.

For Dropbox’s international HR director Laura Ryan, this means starting her day at 10am to take care of the school run, and working until 6pm. Meanwhile, the company’s  director of UK media Andy Wilson likes to start at 7:30am and finish at 5pm, taking breakfast and lunch breaks with his partner, and making time to walk, run, cycle or kayak.

In a move towards asynchronous working, Dropbox employees are also being encouraged to conduct calendar audits to reduce unnecessary meetings. Ryan, for example, cut her weekly meeting hours down from 15 to 10.

“The model of 10 hours per day on Zoom doesn't work. We need to give people the time for deep focus within their working day and do whatever they need, whether it’s take a nap, or go for a run,” says Ryan.

“I feel like it's been very freeing for our employee base to move away from that constant hamster wheel.”

Pros: Staff still have freedom within a wider, consistent framework.

Cons: Everyone in the business cannot work this way – sales teams, for example, still need to follow traditional work hours as they are dealing with customers.

Model three: Hybrid work and staggered start times

For those new to flexible working, this might be the most common and palatable model. It involves staff members working partly remote, and partly in the office; flexibility is also offered by letting employees determine their start and finish times.

Bath and London-based communications agency Clearly has a number of team members working different time periods, such as 8am to 4pm, or 10am to 6pm.

“During lockdown, the isolation and sense of cabin fever saw some of the team taking twice or even three times as long to complete a routine task due to the fact that the four walls they worked in were the same as those they lived; there was little or no work/life separation. Simply taking regular breaks was not the solution – trialing different start and end times for their working day was,” said Paul Mackenzie Cummins, founder and managing director of Clearly.

“It doesn’t matter to me, or the business, when they choose to start their working day. It’s about providing people with an environment where they can schedule their day around the times that enable them to get the best out of themselves.”

Pros: This model requires minimal changes to company policy, and can increase general wellbeing and satisfaction amongst staff.

Cons: Each staff member’s start and finish times will have to be documented and publicised to maintain internal structure.

Perhaps the most important thing to note is that getting flex-work right for the first time can be tricky – it’s essential to go into the process with an open, empathetic mindset which welcomes feedback from staff. “We are trying to reinvent the way of working for generations to come,” concludes Ryan. “We're not going to get this right on day one, but we'll figure it out together.”

MaryLou Costa has written for The Times, WorkLife, Business Insider, Stylist, The Evening Standard, The Daily Mail and others. She's fascinated by the future of work, especially changes that advance women’s careers.

Illustrations by Iker Ayestaran