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Why are Organizations across Geographies and Industries Going Flexi? – Part 1

By Anusha Singh

In our previous blogs, Being Agile–What does that Mean to You in Your Personal and Professional Life? and Agile Organizations: A Millennial Reality, we discussed the meaning of living life with an agile mindset, and what it meant for organizations to practice agility at the workplace. Both conversations are even more relevant today as employers and employees across the globe are grappling with the dramatic consequences of COVID-driven remote working. We are in the thick of aggressive behavioral change that demands an agile workforce like never before. Leaders who are riding the change by looking ahead and planning agile work policies are on their way to securing their organization’s future. Instead of being forced to react once again, we discussed in our last blog Rising above COVID with Agile Work Policies how critical it is to lay down a well-thought out agile work policy that is fresh and bespoke to meet your business goals and employee expectations.

Now while organizations will have to recalibrate their existing workforce towards building an agile one thanks to the black swan event, even as in the pre-COVID world, there were a host of pressing reasons that had compelled organizations worldwide to build an agile workforce. Before employees were forced to convert their homes into work spaces, most industries were already responding to the need for agility and flexibility, whether legal, IT, aviation, FMCG or knowledge. Without implying that every function in an industry could adopt remote working, businesses driven by an agile-mindset have been tearing down erstwhile fallacious presumptions that surrounded flexi-working. The industry with the most flexible working conditions was tech, while the least flexible were manufacturing and healthcare.

What are these requirements that led to the shift in approach globally? What are these realities that have made agility driven flexi-work models imperative for organizations today? I have picked four that are so obvious you may hear yourself say, “How can we afford to ignore them anymore? We have to factor them in our work policies organization-wide.” More so today when everyone is in the same boat, equally struck by the need to take a fresh approach at ‘how we work,’ how we make our employees work, and how we build a workforce that is resilient to rise above black swan events in the future.

Let’s look at the first reality.

Businesses today do not work the way they did a decade back.

In a world where work requirements have become global and diverse, top-down planning models are giving way to nimble hub and spoke work models. Most organizations have in-country extensions that give greater flexibility to their workforce and clients. Clients can choose service delivery from the geography that best suits both in terms of both cost and the service itself.

Cross-functional initiatives have become common. Teams that earlier worked in silos now work in a network of projects deploying employees with multiple skill-sets. That means coming together of teams from all directions and divisions, often based in different time zones. As I highlighted in my first blog Being agile – What does that mean to you in your Personal and Professional Life?,even clients don’t care where employees work from as long they meet expectations. Effective working may not always be correlated with reporting at a designated physical space every day.

Alongside, the demand for talent with niche skills is rising. AT&T projects an enormous need for employees with skills in emerging areas such as software and network engineering, data science, artificial intelligence, machine learning, augmented reality, and automation. In fact people with niche skills themselves want to be flexi-workers participating in the gig economy instead of being employees in a typical corporate structure.

India’s IT sector is set to see a 44% increase in flexi-staff by 2021. Employees are traveling overseas to work on-site. Businesses are outsourcing services to contractors and increasing their offshore operations.

Not just IT, the impact of gig economy driven flexi-working has led the way for other sectors too. Take the example of Virgin Group known for its forward-looking employee policies. They believe flexible working is smart working. Through a number of flexible working initiatives like working from home, unlimited leave, integrated technology, and well-being in the workplace, they treat employees like the capable adults they are. And that is one of the reasons why they are an extremely sought after employer. Virgin Australia, the largest airline to use the Virgin brand, views requests for ad hoc flexibility through a ‘why not’ rather than a ‘why’ lens. Examples of flexi options for non-operational team members include a 9-day fortnight, later start or early finish times, and a half day every working week. Operational team members can also access flexibility including job-sharing, part-time opportunities, and bidding for their preferred roster.

Another example is of Dell Technologies. Today, nearly 60% of Dell’s employees globally work flexibly, and the loyalty of employees who work remotely tends to be 20% higher than the score of those who don’t. Dell makes a point of holding remote and on-site employees to the same standards. They declare, ‘it’s about performance, not appearance.’

Almost a decade back, O’Melveny & Myers LLP launched ‘CustOMMize’ for all its associates and counsels. A comprehensive work place flexibility program, it includes return-to-work on a reduced workload after a leave of absence, and offers a 2-year sabbatical that allows lawyers to explore other interests while staying with the firm. They could transition back to the firm after the sabbatical.

Organizations are also realizing that if you don’t offer flexibility rooted in agile mindset, you’re missing out on a diverse range of candidates. Women are more likely than men to cite flexible work arrangements as a very important factor when considering a job, with those between 36 and 45 years most likely to do so.

India Inc. across sectors has shown flexibility via return to work programs for second career women. From Tata Steel in the traditional industrial sector to RBS in financial services, Genpact in business processing and ecommerce major Amazon, Mahindra Logistics in the logistics sector to Tata Motors, all have programs to give second-career opportunity to women who have taken professional break of 1-4 years.

In Sodexo India, people can work half-time jobs and take unpaid family leave for up to 2 years. It has rapidly increased the number of women working there. In 2018, McAfee India launched a 12-week Return to Workplace program to offer training and resources for those looking to put their careers back on track. GE created the GE Women’s Network 1997 to help women working at GE advance their careers. Today, it is expected to keep in touch with women who’ve left GE, and help them get in touch with the organization whenever they want to return.

It is interesting how differently organizations across continents are responding to changing needs of the global economy today. But the common undercurrent in all the responses is an earnest effort towards offering flexi-options rooted in an agile mindset. 

Now let’s plunge into the second reality enabling and necessitating flexi-working.

The wave of technological advancements.

We’re riding a wave of technological advancements that have made virtual world communication as reliable and responsive as face-to-face meetings. Name it and there is a technological solution for frictionless internal communications and work execution. That includes cloud-based technology, emails, WhatsApp, FaceTime, Slack, Microsoft Teams, GoToMeeting, Skype, Webex, document sharing and professional social media, Bluetooth-based access, biometric logins.

Savvy businesses are effectively using technology to enable location-agnostic work styles that are as co-ordinated, connected, and committed as any other. Instead of the traditional focus on brick and mortar, they are investing more and more in cutting-edge technological tools to create superior employee experience and better productivity. Let’s look at a couple of examples.

Humana, a U.S. healthcare company, recently expanded its flexibility offering by deploying technological advancements to its advantage. While from 2016 itself roughly half of Humana’s employees had opted for remote work policies, the call center team couldn’t because they had to record their calls at their desks. So in 2018, Humana piloted a new flexible work style. It equipped call center employees with at-home technology and replaced assigned desks with flexible shared ones. As a result, Humana today benefits from not just happy employees enjoying the same flexibility as the rest of the workforce but also sources candidates from areas beyond their local offices.

Schneider Electric recently tapped into the power of artificial intelligence to create a more fluid culture of internal talent sharing. The company launched a new AI-powered platform, Open Talent Market. It is encouraging managers, who in the past may have hoarded talent, to recognize and support the rise of a new internal gig economy.

Appen, a machine learning company with over 350 full-time employees across 7 countries and over a million contractors across the globe, realized that its flexi-workers didn’t feel adequately connected. So in 2017, Appen used tech solutions to build an internal community forum where flex workers could offer advice, troubleshoot common issues, and get to know each other. At the same time, Appen invested in video conferencing, instant messaging, and document collaboration solutions. The result has been greater job satisfactions and a 5% drop in attrition within the first year.

Baker McKenzie claims that its internal policies of flexible work through ‘bAgile’ and family care through ‘Family Leave’ are a response to technology enablement to meet their employees’ and clients’ needs in a more agile way.

It is clear that organizations are increasingly realizing that it only makes business sense to tweak the physicality-centric traditional work styles and meet the requirements of the modern workforce. There are two more pressing realities that have made the shift towards flexi-working and building an agile workforce imperative today. I will cover them and how organizations’ are responding to them in my next blog Why are Organizations Across Geographies and Industry Going Flexi? – Part 2. Stay tuned!

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