Flexible work is here to stay in many industries. Yet, research suggests most senior executives have yet to embrace a flexible mindset toward the new world of work.
A survey published earlier this year by the University of Oxford and global consulting firm Protiviti, a Robert Half subsidiary, found that 70% of business leaders expect their companies will be embracing a hybrid working model in 2032. However, in that same survey, 57% of business leaders said they’ll mandate how, when and where employees will work in 2032.
Meanwhile, in a recent McKinsey survey, 87% of employed people in the U.S. said they’d take the opportunity to work flexibly if their employers gave them that option. And according to a Pew Research Center survey, 60% of workers with jobs that can be done remotely said they’d like to work from home all or most of the time for the long term—up from 54% in 2020.
Given that millions of workers want to work remotely, why are so many executives looking to take a hard line on flexible work? Here are three factors driving this thinking, along with counterpoints for business leaders to weigh:
1. Productivity concerns
This is a natural worry for executives. However, consider this: U.S. productivity in the decade following the Great Recession grew at a slower pace than in any other decade since World War II, according to the World Economic Forum (WEF). But during the pandemic, productivity has soared, and WEF attributes that trend to “an upsurge of efficiency in work-from-home industries” where employees are working extra hours during the time that they previously spent commuting.
Think about how many hours of productivity businesses could gain in the coming decade—and beyond—if workers who don’t need to do their jobs from the company’s place of business all the time, or at all, aren’t forced to return to the office full time?
2. Worries about worker engagement and retention
In a dispersed workforce, fostering a cohesive work culture and driving employee engagement can be a challenge. But plenty of leading firms are doing it—and well. Some companies, like Automattic, Articulate and GitLab, have been at it for a long time. And others, including Robert Half, are still new to it, but succeeding. (In a recent Great Place to Work® survey, 94% of our employees said the organization is a great place to work. We attribute this high rating, in part, to our embrace of flexible work.)
As for retention, a forced return to the office could prompt valued employees to leave. Gallup recently surveyed more than 8,000 “remote-capable” workers in the U.S. and found that employees who aren’t able to work in their preferred location have “a desire to quit.” Gallup says these workers “simply do not feel well-positioned to do their best work or live their best life.”
Business leaders also need to consider the negative impact that an inflexible mindset toward remote work can have on their ability to attract in-demand workers. We’ve seen this in our own work helping companies recruit executive talent. Employers that don’t support flexible work often struggle to secure preferred candidates for critical leadership roles. Meanwhile, executive jobs that provide at least some flexibility are usually staffed quickly. Plus, companies that offer work flexibility open the door to hiring skilled talent from anywhere in the world.
3. Inertia due to lack of vision (and a little insecurity)
For many business leaders, the inability to visualize how their organization can support flexible work arrangements permanently is perhaps the greatest hurdle to adopting a flexible mindset about the new world of work. They aren’t sure how to make it happen at scale for the long term—and perhaps, feel a bit insecure because they don’t have all the answers yet. So, they sit on the fence. Or worse, they try to force the workplace back into an unattainable pre-pandemic status quo.
Unfortunately, there are no easy answers with flexible work, save for one: Businesses need to embrace it to some degree. What that looks like in an organization—hybrid work, a four-day work week, alternative schedules, flextime, etc.—will vary and likely change over time. Figuring out the right approach will also require looking at every employee and their role individually to consider what arrangements make the most sense. But the potential benefits for the business, including attracting and retaining top talent and creating a happier, more engaged and productive workforce, are well worth it.