The new standards at work include flexible schedules, remote work, and even four-day weeks. How can traditionally operated firms make the shift successfully?

In Europe, for decades only a small minority regularly worked from home. Telework, flex work, and similar alternative arrangements were considered novelties rather than norms. Then, with the arrival of COVID, crisis-driven remote work gave millions of employees and their parent organizations a crash-course in the work-from-home experience.

Now, as opportunities present themselves for a return to the office and potential return to previous work schedule norms, there’s a hesitation on both sides. Many employees -- and particularly younger employees –- have found that they enjoy and prefer working from home. Organizations, too, have seen that there’s the possibility for higher levels of productivity and expanded access to talent if remote and flex arrangements stay in place. Thus, in the paragraphs ahead, some of the ways that organizations and employees alike can intentionally and strategically shift from a “crisis mode” working arrangement to a more mutually comfortable schedule will be explored.

One of the biggest challenges for managers and individual contributors in a fresh remote or flex work situation has been establishing appropriate oversight and expectations. Workers do not want to feel as though they must work all hours, with no boundary between work and life. Similarly, managers do not want to feel as though they’ve lost control of their teams, in the dark about project status or unable to get out ahead of performance issues.

A solution to this confusion and frustration on both sides is to put more clarity around expected outcomes and position responsibilities. When employees and managers are not face-to-face, or will be working asynchronous hours, what are the signs of a job well done? Which tasks are critical to success in each role? Clearly identifying what needs to be done and the manner or standard in which it should be accomplished can eliminate ambiguity and make both sides more comfortable with alternative work arrangements.

Further, establishing these kinds of position standards can help guide discussions about which roles and task truly are or are not well suited for remote or flexible arrangements. There are roles within organizations where remote work simply isn’t feasible long-term, and other roles where a variety of flexible and alternative arrangements can be used without a compromise in quality of performance. Placing these judgments in the context of outcomes needed helps remove any hint of bias or favoritism in approving work arrangements and keeps the organization’s operational needs at the forefront.

A second key shift companies can make is to embrace an experimental mindset. According to research from the European Commission’s Science and Knowledge Service, remote work rates throughout Europe were steadily in the single digits between 2009 and 2019. Flex schedules, such as four-day weeks, part time arrangements, and job sharing, were most associated with job insecurity or tenuous attachment. This created fixed patterns of thinking alike that made it difficult to experiment with alternative schedules or telework.

Now, however, most firms have had a chance to do some experiments – and there’s no reason to automatically assume that as lockdown regulations are retired these experiments should end. Working on an employee-by-employee basis, with departments, or with cohorts at the same level, firms can try out even more scheduling and locational models. Doing three to four month trial runs can help firms and workers alike determine if fully remote, hybrid, or fully in-office situations create the most productivity and engagement among team members.

Again, it will be key to focus on outcomes along with the experience. Does remote work yield the greatest number of closed deals from the sales team? Great, keep it up! Do flex schedules keep turnover rates down, or result in quality issues with the customer service team? Let’s test it out. Do flex hours work better in the summer and not at all in winter? Interesting, and based on the data, things can shift.

Cultivating a fundamental willingness to rethink foundational principles around work formats will allow businesses to partner with their employees to redesign work imaginatively for a post pandemic future. Also, in adopting a belief that there’s no one “perfect” answer, firms can train themselves to be more adaptable to evolving preferences among the team and with customers, too.

Working in office limited talent pools for employers and restricted employee’s access to geographically distributed opportunities. By moving to telework or flex arrangements, there’s a chance for both sides to come out ahead in the talent game.

For workers, flexible models that feature telework or remote hybrids can place more companies within feasible reach as potential employers. Similarly, it can give more workers exposure to international teams or cross-border development opportunities within their own firms, removing the need to “job hop” to advance.

For employers, remote work and flex work can dramatically expand external talent pools and create a deeper level of optionality in hiring. All of Europe has been fighting skill gaps and talent shortages, but removing geographic barriers can help firms fill key roles faster. Additionally, providing flexible work arrangements can prevent unwanted turnover, as employees who have become enamored of remote work or who need to have flexible schedules will be more motivated to stay with firms that allow them to work in their preferred manner.

Telework, remote work, and flex schedules have not historically been the norm in Europe, but the pandemic gave millions the chance to try out these models. Now, firms and their workers have the opportunity to keep the best versions of these arrangements. By redesigning roles to be outcome focused, embracing an experimental mindset, and making the most of talent and retention aspects, even the most traditional firms can successfully adapt to today’s evolving work arrangements.