Flexible Work Strategy
Hi everyone. Today we are joined by Cali Yost. Cali is the Founder of the Flex + Strategy Group, which helps organizations reimagine how, when and where work is done. She has been consulting in this area for more than two decades and her clients have been across multiple industries, including banks, healthcare systems, universities and governments.
Today we will have the fortune to access Cali’s expertise and insight on the future of work at a time when the entire world is taking stock of where we are and what is next as we prepare for an uncertain future. So, Cali Yost, welcome to Center Stage.
Thank you, Joe, it’s great to be here.
Thank you for coming Cali. We greatly appreciate it and are looking forward to the conversation. Let’s start with some big picture stuff.
You made or you make a very purposeful distinction between flexible work arrangements and flexible ways of operating. And the shift, you know, to flexible ways of operating certainly didn’t start with this pandemic, right? So please just set the scene for us. What was the state of play at the end of 2019 and what is the scale of the change of what’s really happened since March of 2020?
I will start with the distinction part of the question first and then I will set the stage and give a current update. So that distinction is very important because when we talk about flexible work arrangements, it seems like something that is sort of set aside, not really part of the core day-to-day way an organization operates.
And flexibility in how, when and where work is done really is about how you deliver your services, how your people execute their jobs. And when you approach it from a flexible way of operating, you see that it really is a very powerful tool to sustain operating resilience, which is what happened when the pandemic hit is that all of a sudden you had this massive, forced experiment and this massive transition to remote work that, to your point, was already happening.
nd I think this is another very important point to make, which is what I believe, is that the pandemic just accelerated a trend that was already happening, but it was happening in most organizations in a very kind of organic and random way. It wasn’t an intentional way the organization operated. The organization was operating that way to a certain degree but it wasn’t in a strategic, intentional way.
So that is the pivot we now need to make. We need to now take the lessons we have learned from this forced experiment that accelerated that trend in remote work, in time flexibility and workspace flexibility. We need to take that, those lessons learned, and now think about what it’s going to look like on the other side of the pandemic, how we are going to integrate those lessons learned and actually end up where we needed to be anyway.
So that is an important point for leaders to understand. As you think about what’s next, what this has really done is it has forced your organization to a place ultimately where it was going to go, and now how do you take it to the next level as we look to the future?
What have we learned since last spring about the stress, the real stresses that are involved from working from home? I’ve read plenty of articles and heard personal stories from friends and family. It has put a different level of stress on individuals and then therefore the organizations they work for.
Absolutely. So that forced experiment toward remote work, what that did... We didn’t have any time to prepare, right? So if you are intentional about integrating flexibility into your organizational framework and operating model, you are going to have time to train people and have people learn how to use technology and know how to manage the boundaries around their work and lives, and managers know how to manage. And none of that happened. Everybody just got a laptop and was told, “Go work from home.”
So, what that did is it destroyed the boundary, the traditional boundary we thought was there between work and the other parts of our lives. All of a sudden, people were working with their spouses and partners and roommates in the same place. And then add onto that, we lost all of our traditional childcare supports - schools closed, child care closed and in many cases went remote, online. So you then had your kids in your workspace. And just honestly it was completely overwhelming for people and continues to be overwhelming. I think there has been obviously a level of adaptation and people making the best of it, but it is still really, really hard.
The other piece of this with those boundaries that disappeared, is that people were not trained how to what I call intentionally manage their work/life fit, intentionally manage how, when and where they are working so that they are turning off work when they need to, and they are doing the things that keep them healthy and sustain their well-being and their ability to continue to perform. There are people who are struggling with that because they just don’t know how and the organization wasn’t set up to support that type of decision making and planning.
This is where we are. We’re now past the ‘let’s just survive,’ we’re getting into the stabilize phase for the next few months until we can begin to transition safety back into the workspace. And these are the things we’re going to have to start talking about, is how do we manage the boundaries between work and life, how do we turn off effectively and maintain our well-being and not burn out, and how do we prioritize and then figure out when we use certain technologies and how we optimize that use.
So again, this is where we are, we are in the stabilize phase where some of these issues that have come up, we’re going to start addressing them. But addressing them will help us be even more effective on the other side.
And it is a very dynamic, I’ll say, area, this whole idea of intentionally managing your work-life balance. It has always been there but it’s in a different setting now and it is a highly personal thing, to manage your work/life balance because everybody’s situation is different. So it’s not like you can hand everybody a pamphlet and say do these three things. It is very dynamic in nature, huh?
It is and that’s why I actually really encourage people to think about it more as a work/life fit, your unique work/life fit, the way your work and life fit together, day to day. Because it can be very different depending upon what it is you need to accomplish at a particular time.
So I was just on a call with somebody yesterday and he was talking about how he shares remote learning responsibilities with his partner and how that is different on different days because their kids are in school some days but working remotely from home with them on other days. So his work/life fit is very different depending upon what that personal reality is, but then also with regards to what he is trying to do in his job. And he found thinking of it as work/life fit really frees him up from thinking that there is a right way to do it and also that there’s a flexible intentionality there that he can control to a certain degree, to make sure what really matters to him gets done.
This whole topic is so interesting because it really goes into the decision-making processes that companies and organizations and governments are facing right now. So I’m going to shift a little bit and ask one of these stats that I was looking at. I was stunned to see that women have left the workforce, or the workplace, at four times the rate of men largely due to these family care issues. To what extent is this a result of companies failing to offer a full range of workplace flexibility strategies?
So this is super interesting, Joe. I feel so strongly about this. It’s not necessarily that they didn’t offer flexibility. So a lot of organizations, if you go to their websites, their internal intranets, they have formal flexible work arrangement policies right there. So they have given people “permission to drive.” Drive, go ahead, do this. But they never taught anybody how to drive. They never taught managers how to have these conversations with people, they never even taught employees how to say, okay, so my realities have radically changed, how do I leverage one of these opportunities you’re saying I have to meet my manager half way and figure out how this is going to work? None of that was done.
So what you have now is radical change in realties, people not trained how to now execute these tools, and you have women who just are saying, I can’t do it, I can’t do everything I was expected to do exactly how I’m doing it and manage my family situation. And they just don’t feel like they had an ability to try to reset things, so they just felt they needed to quit.
This is a huge, missed opportunity for organizations. And if I had one thing to say to the managers who are listening right now, if you want to keep your parents, and I’m saying men and women both now, because the men, the fathers, need to feel they can also have flexibility for the women who they are partnered with to be able to also have flexibility. Every manager should walk up to the parents who work for them and say, come to me with a plan. Come to me with a plan about how you can fit your work and life together over the next few months until your children are able to go back to some formal either school or camp or care situation.
You will find people are very creative. And in the process, you will be able to retain somebody who, by the way, will be forever grateful and so dedicated to you that you helped them navigate through this phase. But they are not going to come to you if you do not say to them, I want to hear what you have to say. I want you to put a plan together.
So that’s the missing piece. I think companies did not fail in terms of offering. I think where companies are seeing the failure is they never created the culture where those discussions can take place and the problem solving can happen and that is what needs to happen now.
And the interesting thing, and what you’re saying here, is there is a very positive business outcome of engendering a loyalty, right? It’s a value proposition to attract and retain.
Absolutely. I saw this with the financial downturn, how organizations just let people go and not that too long after, they are scrambling to find people. So you have a good person who is trained and knows your business and they just need some support right now and some flexibility until people are vaccinated.
It’s not that far away. If we were to look down the road, we could probably pretty confidently say by the end of the year things are going to start to be very different, and then you’ve lost that person..? That’s really... And it’s not necessary. All it really requires is some thoughtful decision making and planning between manager and employee to really make a difference.
What do people who are working from home want and need that they don’t have right now?
So this is a really interesting question, Joe, and this gets back to how I think we have moved from that kind of ‘just let’s survive’ to the stabilization phase with all of this. And what I am hearing consistently are a few things. One, there is a real need for prioritization. Having a priority that they are able to then plan around, so that’s encouraging a more regular update, expectation-setting cadence between managers and individual employees, and also the team overall.
There is also a real need, and I mentioned this earlier, to kind of take an audit of all the technology everybody is using and prioritize that as well, and then say when are we using this technology, when are we not? What are the protocols around meetings so that we are being effective in how we are running meetings? Again, a little more of this planning and intentionality around how the work is getting done, with the tools that we need that enable that work right now.
And again, I also think there is this need or this desire to be able to put some boundaries up, to be able to talk about the need to not send emails after a certain period of time, or be able to block off periods on your calendar where you maybe have to take care of your kids’ remote learning, and people respecting that and being willing to plan around that. So those are the three things that I’m hearing, this real stepping back and a little more organization and intentionality around how people are working and also managing their lives.
So Cali, I saw this recent, December 2020 poll by Pew - more than half workers who suddenly found themselves working remotely at the onset of the pandemic actually want to keep working from home even after the pandemic. So maybe this is not a surprise. But are employers ready and willing to embrace this much of a shift away from the office culture of the past?
So here is where we are right now. I think I can confidently say two things. One, that the flexible work ship has sailed. If you are a leader who thinks you’re just holding on until the end of the year where things are going to go back to 2019, that’s not going to happen. Also, you have to think about the fact that after working so long in such a radically different way people know they can do it. The argument that it can’t be done is not going to hold.
But what is really interesting is they also want to go back and be with the people they work with. So I can 100 percent say that for most people who work for organizations who have been able to work remotely, they are going to want a hybrid remote reality, remote/on-site reality. It’s going to be the desire to flex across workspaces and workplaces and time as the task dictates. And the sweet spot in surveys seems to be about 2.2 days a week on site for employees.
This is where it gets interesting. When you ask managers what they think, there is a slight difference in that average number of what they think people should be working remotely. So the number is a little lower. It’s maybe closer to 1.7 days. So there’s kind of a gap. But the point is most managers understand that people aren’t going to want to go back to the way they are working.
The real goal is to now look at a holistic, strategic approach around rethinking work and that’s where I think you’re going to get the big impact. But there is an awareness. It’s not going to go back. And now, how do you make it happen?
There is also an education divide I saw related to this workplace flexibility realty for people. Here’s some more stats that we saw from Pew Research. They found that six in ten workers with a bachelor’s degree or more can work from home. I contrast, you can see that only 25 percent of workers who do not have a four-year degree had the ability to work from home. It’s a shocking gap between the two groups. What are the implications of this?
Okay, I have two thoughts on this. One, I think this is a lack of imagination. Because I have actually seen employees that you would normally think couldn’t work flexibly - now, I am saying that intentionally because with all the focus on remote work, we are forgetting that there’s also flexibility in time and in the way work processes are done that really can give people who might need to be on site some degree of flexibility that they still value.
And I will tell you that over the years I have challenged this belief that let’s say administrative assistants cannot work from home. I have worked with teams of administrative assistants and they have come up with the most amazing Venn diagram of coverage and use of technology that they can work from home let’s say one day a week and there is no drop off in terms of coverage and their ability to do their job.
And then finally, I have seen flexibility with union staffs where they might not be able to work remotely but they got compressed workweeks where they work longer days by an hour and they get a half a day off every other week that is very valuable to them. So again, it is a lack of imagination and it’s also expanding the range of what we define as flexibility beyond just remote, because all types of flexibility can be very valuable to people and to the business.
That’s some great insight right there. Because it’s not just based on what’s going on today, it’s something that has stood the test of time. So let’s look at some solutions or talk in the mindset of a solution.
So one of the things that PMI is really interested in is how people develop and share knowledge, particularly as they are working 100 percent in most cases virtually or remotely. For example, one of my favorite face-to-face meetings of all time is the one when you bump into somebody in the hallway, or the cafeteria, they always seem to be the most effective or productive. Well, that is something you can’t do right now in the way it used to be done.
So you’ve been studying flexible ways of operating for years. How does remote work affect knowledge and creativity and innovation, and are there any upsides that we are not aware of?
All right, so I’m going to say something that I think is maybe potentially controversial. But I think this rapid pivot to remote work, I think people have been extraordinarily creative and extraordinarily innovative in a really tough situation in order to be able to continue to get their jobs done as well if not better. And we have seen data internally with our clients that people are doing pretty well and, in fact, in some cases feeling they’re even better because a lot of the layers got eliminated and they are more responsive directly to clients and nimble in how they are able to respond.
So again, it’s like, hmm, how do we make this argument that you need to be in the same physical space for that to happen? That being said, again, people are saying that once it’s safe, they do, at least some of the time, want to be physically with the people that they work with because there is just a different flavor to that exchange, that running into people and being with people, that they do want.
So I think it is more an argument, in terms of the knowledge, creativity and innovation, it’s just a different degree of it, a different type of it that is happening when you are in the same place together around certain tasks. And then the other things, maybe it’s not quite as necessary and can be done in any... however it needs to be done, and you’re still gonna have that happen.
We have seen people try to creatively replicate that water cooler. They will just open up a Zoom room and people just get on and just talk to each other for 20 minutes a couple times a week just to exchange information. And it’s very informal and people know it’s there and there is a new app that is I think related to Slack called Donut where you’re just randomly assigned to people that you normally don’t talk to and you just have conversations with them.
So again it’s not exactly the same type of innovation and creativity, but again I think people have been super-duper challenged and have really stepped to the plate and done some amazing things. The goal now is to capture all that and create this new, next way of operating that uses all the good stuff of the way we used to work and pulls together what we have learned into something even better for going forward.
I noted that you were a commercial banker earlier in your career, so you know a whole heck of a lot about the importance of building relationships with customers and stakeholders. What can you share with the audience about best practices for relationship building when people are in a situation where they’re not meeting face-to-face, they’re not shaking hands and so forth, they are not breaking bread?
It’s funny, that whole relationship element as such a critical aspect of an organization’s success was actually what brought me to this field to begin with. When I was a banker 20+ years ago, I saw my relationships with my clients put in peril when a banker left because oftentimes they needed flexibility and we weren’t able to give it to them. So I initially went to my leadership and said hey can we let people work flexibly? Because our customers don’t care where they are. Well, of course back then they were like, I don’t even know what you’re talking about.
But I knew that that flexibility would have been really important to my business. So relationships are so critical and I think what I have seen is there is almost a greater intentionality to maintaining those relationships. It’s almost as if people have said how can I creatively connect with the people I serve in ways that maybe I didn’t before.
So I have a client that historically had done a lot of global convening events in other countries and now they can’t. So they have been forced to do virtual convenings. And in fact, I was on a call this morning and they are sharing how amazingly effective these virtual convenings have been in terms of just bringing in more people than they typically could bring together, that it has expanded their reach. However, as they look to what’s going to be next, they can see that there are aspects of these convenings that really will be beneficial to add back in more in-person events but also still have a virtual element to them so that they can keep that contact with people otherwise they would not.
So again, it’s taking maybe some of the new practices that you’ve developed in this period of time where you can’t actually physically be with people and thinking to yourself, how can I continue those, but then also add back in some of that in-person connectivity that also is very valuable and everybody really misses. That is the exciting part, I think.
You said intentionality is important, the intentionality of these approaches is important. So for our audience, what skills should they be more intentional about cultivating when they are working remotely?
I think as an individual we do need to learn how to be thoughtful and very planful about what we are trying to get done at work, what we are trying to get done in our personal lives, planning what that looks like, planning when it’s going to happen, how it’s going to happen and then coordinating with the people that are in our personal lives more intentionally as well. Because I think what we’ve learned is none of us live on an island and we have to coordinate with our partners, with our kids, and we have to coordinate with the other people we work with so we can all figure out how we can align what’s best to get our priorities achieved but at the same time allow us to maintain those boundaries that will allow us to be our most productive and effective on and off the job.
I do think that there needs to be skill building around how to use technology effectively, facilitate a meeting, come up with an agenda, run a meeting in an effective, efficient way. These are just basic skills that we are going to have to carry forward even post-Covid because in that hybrid dynamic work reality, we are actually going to add that other element of working across workplaces. So it’s going to be even more important that we are intentional about how, when and where we are working and fitting that together with our personal lives but then also how we are coordinating with others.
If we are a leader, we have to truly master the basics of good management. We can’t just rely on presence as being an indicator of performance because that is not going to work anymore. You have to learn to set priorities, you have to learn to give feedback and hold people accountable, and you have to learn some of these skills of flexible team leadership and making sure that you are creating those moments and coordinating the team in a way across all those different dimensions to achieve their goals.
So there’s just things that we can do now that will help us be even better in our current situation but also prepare us for how we’re going to work once we’re able to all be together again.
So touching on a topic from earlier, what are the long-term implications for women if companies are moving in a direction of being more intentional in the conversation we just had about workplace flexibility strategies? What might this mean for efforts to improve diversity, equity and inclusion within organizations?
I think it is a fantastic opportunity, mostly because... First of all, let me just say it’s interesting, right now the focus is on women and it should be because they are carrying the greatest burden with their personal responsibilities and they are the ones that really need to leverage the flexibility that they could possibly have in order to get through these next few months. But what’s interesting is prior to the pandemic, believe it or not, men were the majority of remote workers. So it wasn’t women.
So what we now need to do is almost de-gender flexibility and instead say, what do people, individuals, need in order to be their best at work and manage their lives as well? And that includes obviously women but that really does include men because what I have found in organizations is, when we make this all about women men stand there like, hey, listen, I have got responsibilities too. I also want flexibility. And we have found that it was often harder for men to get that flexibility because it was seen as something women were mostly able to take advantage of. Even though they were the majority of remote workers, they didn’t feel like they could actually say that they were doing it because it was something they needed for themselves.
It is also important to understand that there are different work styles. There are different ways people operate at their optimal capacity. It’s just there are different ways we all bring our best to our jobs and flexibility is key to allowing that to just come to its highest and best opportunity for the organization and for the individual. So it’s really exciting, I think this is a great opportunity.
So, PMI has been a very prominent voice in discussions on the future of work. So in that context, what forward-thinking organizations, what are they doing right now to plan their future of work?
I will talk about the organizations I see doing a good job with this. They’re really stepping back and they’re trying to understand how work, first of all, how work has been transformed by the pandemic. So they are taking the time to say, so how are we using our technology differently, how are our people coordinating with each other either effectively or ineffectively? If people feel they are being more productive and they feel like they are being more innovative, why?
Like, what does that look like? What are they doing? What parts of what we have learned that are good that we’re going to keep can we then add back into the things about the way we worked before that we think still are important and we want to pull together into this new creative whole. I think that is the first step they’re doing, which I think is very important.
Then from that baseline learning, they are now saying, okay, what do we need to put in place to be ready when we are able to begin that transition back into the workplace? How do we have to redesign our workspaces? How do we have to train our people? What skills do they need? How do we have to re-align our enterprise, our ecosystem of our enterprise around this new way of working? How do we have to look at our HR policies? Does our performance management system support the competencies that people need?
How are we going to attract and retain our talent? I think talent strategy is going to be radically changed by this. There needs to be an understanding that before the pandemic, flexibility was a differentiator in terms of you getting talent. You could say okay, we’re flexible and people would say great I’m going to come work for you because I don’t have that where I am and even you could pay me less. In certain instances that’s how badly they wanted it. Now, your talent strategy has to just assume that flexibility is the baseline expectation for employment, and make sure that you are able to very confidently offer that as you go out and look for talent because that’s going to be one of the top things that they are going to expect and ask for.
So again, these are the things that the companies who are really forward thinking, these are the elements they are looking at, at that ecosystem, at the infrastructure and at the cultural level, so they are ready when they start that transition back into our new future of work normal.
So it is a highly integrated approach which should define what is best practice out there.
And it makes sense, right? We’re dealing with the human aspects of operating a business and it is never a one-dimensional thing, that’s for sure. So a lot of our audience every day is engaged in what we call the project economy. We see a lot of potential for new projects to design the new workplaces, design or work on the cultures that we talked about. What will some of these projects look like? What happens to open work environments, hoteling, shared office spaces, the things that we have grown familiar with? Are there any new concepts trending in that regard?
So you said this earlier and I will just reiterate it - one size is not going to fit all. It’s really going to be based on a particular organization. So, different organizations are going to approach this redesign based on what they do and their business and what the needs are. So, for example, a tech company is going to look very different than say, a manufacturer in how they approach this.
But in terms of the approach, it should be cross functional. You do not want to just say, oh, I’m going to give this to the HR department. They play a role but you want to have HR working with facilities, working with technology, working with leadership from the business, so that they are able to be involved in terms of determining how, when and where work is done best within their particular businesses and what that innovation can look like.
And you want to make sure that you are cascading and pulling in the input of your employees into that decision-making process. You are not just doing it in isolation at the top, it really is this coordinated re-think of how, when and where work is done. And you want to position it as a pilot, as an experiment, as a way you’re going to test… whatever you decide that new reality is gonna look like, test it, study it, recalibrate it and set that upfront as the expectation.
Now, in terms of open work environments and hoteling and shared offices, like technology is an enabler. The work needs to drive this whole effort. The what that you are trying to achieve, the priorities you want to accomplish, that is what you’re looking at first. But then to enable that is the workspace - how can the workspace support a flexible, hybrid, on-site/remote reality?
And ask your people what they would need if they were going to be partially working remotely and coming into the office for more of a convening, team-based collaboration work. That means maybe you’re going to have more collaboration work spaces. You’re not necessarily going to have individual offices, perhaps. But again, bring them into that conversation and make sure technology is part of that because space and technology are very interrelated, especially in this hybrid work reality. And you want to make sure, again, you’re designing it to support the way work will be done.
So, Cali Yost, thank you so much for your time and insight here today. We learned a ton about flexible ways of operating, boundaries between work and life balance, the real opportunity for organizations to use these flexible ways of operating as a value proposition to attract and retain employees. We talked about the fact that we’re not going back to 2019, as a definitive statement, and that people are really looking forward to more hybrid ways of working going forward. Thank you so much, Cali.