For Years, Employees Have Been Asking for a New World of Flexibility. 2020 Proved It Works

Christophe Garnier

By this point in the COVID-19 pandemic, my fellow CEOs know well: At the core of employee happiness is one consistently shared value: flexibility. 

Parents need flexible hours. Talent who are immunocompromised need flexible work geography, determining their workspace according to their level of risk. Employees who found it hard to focus in a shared office environment or who suffered through a trying commute have experienced the marvels of working from home. And job candidates who may once have been drawn in by high-design furniture and craft beverages on tap at the office snack bar are no longer prioritizing finding an office space they can practically live in. Rather, I am hearing from partner after partner that candidates are more concerned about having a flexible schedule, commuting less and, ultimately, spending more time with their families or on their passions. 

None of this reflects the “traditional” office: a central hub with dedicated desks where workers report unconditionally, five days a week from 9 to 5. And that shouldn’t be catching us off guard: This old model had already begun to feel obsolete before coronavirus. In fact, tracking the cultural shift away from it was one of the founding inspirations for our company. 

The year after we founded Upflex in response to this trend, in 2018, about half of the global workforce performed their duties outside of their company’s main office for at least two and a half days per week. But most American enterprise companies still considered flexibility to be a sort of unattainable luxury — perhaps even an impractical one — offered by cutting-edge start-ups, and employees wanted more: As of 2018, an overwhelming majority of employees were saying they needed flexibility, while fewer than half felt they had access to the types of flexibility they longed for. Those who didn’t have the option to work from locations outside the main office were 87% more likely to be unhappy than those with the ability to add variety to their work location. Rigid employers were less happy, too — they were at a hiring disadvantage. More than three quarters of employees were more likely to accept a job if it offered the ability to work from home at least part of the time. 

As Gen Z entered the workforce however, flexibility became increasingly mainstream. Then COVID-19 came, and now, there is no turning back: The pandemic, along with other factors — the advent of 5G, wellbeing as a core aspect of company culture — has laid bare how possible, and even how easy, it is to work from anywhere, asynchronously, and still accomplish great things. From here on out, top talent is going to pursue jobs at companies who are willing to embrace this new way of working. No need to take my word for it: 2020 survey after survey shows it. 

But, of course, another thing we learned last year is that the option to work from home is not enough: For a number of reasons — from space constraints, to shared living spaces, to unreliable WiFi connectivity — not everyone can be productive at home. Plus, I and my colleagues agree, people at all levels of corporate hierarchy will still crave places to come together, collaborate, network, and develop their careers. The office as it stood in 2019 — its size, sprawl, and distractions — weren’t conducive to the focus nor the focused relationship-building that can occur in more intimate, purpose-built spaces. But neither is staying at home all day.

Upflex foresaw the influence that employees’ call for flexibility would have, and we built a product that empowers companies to offer it while saving money and time. Now, we are looking at what comes next: I anticipate that two kinds of flexibility will make their way to the heart of top talents’ priority list: 1) Unconventional hours, including the ability to not only shift one’s workday but to dissect it as needed — what the co-founders of start-up Werk refer to in an op-ed for the Harvard Business Review as “microagility;” and 2) Location variety and independence — flexibility that isn’t limited to just choosing between working from the office or working from home, but that accounts for the fact that different days may mean different levels of comfort with commuting or shared spaces, and different work tasks call for different purpose-built environments. 

In 2021, we will be focused on expanding the bounds of our vision to provide this best-of-all-worlds workspace model: a shared hub space where employees can come together with their clients or coworkers, on-demand “spoke” micro-offices where they can zero in on tasks that call for uninterrupted focus, and most importantly, the option to switch between those spaces and home as they choose. As we look further ahead, we are working on technology-based tools and strategies that integrate them seamlessly. 

Meanwhile, our partners are expanding the bounds of their visions, too. The enterprise companies we have partnered with since the start of the pandemic are using this time to innovate and launch their ‘future workplaces.’ They agree that companies that can’t offer — or refuse to offer — this modern take on flexibility will be at a disadvantage to those who place it at the heart of their offerings and work to build a thriving company culture around it.