The Covid-19 crisis has thrown SMEs, which account for 99% of companies in Switzerland, into a state of emergency. In response, the Swiss government released a Covid-19 Credit of CHF 20 billion for SMEs: up to CHF 500,000 per company with 0% interest rate. The pandemic has also accelerated digitalization (F&B delivery services, well-being goes digital), compelled people to make donations(Swiss Solidarity's "Coronavirus Campaign", Roger Federer's CHF 1 million pledge for the country's most vulnerable families), reduced theft rates (97% less at Geneva airport) and, due to safety and health reasons, has put many employees in work-flexibility mode, forcing them to become more agile and resilient.
In mid-March, the Swiss government announced the temporary closure of schools and universities nationwide, declaring a few days later "extraordinary situation" and issuing a recommendation for all residents to stay at home, especially the sick and people 65 or older. In addition, the government barred gatherings of more than five people, banned all private and public events, and ordered the closure of bars, restaurants, sports facilities and cultural spaces. Only businesses providing essential goods (e.g. grocery stores, pharmacies, banks) were left open. Following federal and cantonal decisions, EHL closed its campus until April 30 and remains operational with remote learning and home working methods.
Before the pandemic outbreak, the question of work flexibility had been - and is now more than ever - a hot topic. LinkedIn's 2019 global talent trends report reveals that it is one of the four trends shaping the employer-employee relationship. The 2019 annual IWG workspace report makes a bolder statement and claims a power shift: employees are calling the shots regarding how they organize themselves, based on when and where they work. Technology is enabling different types of flexibility including functional flexibility (e.g. multi-skilling, job rotation), numerical flexibility (e.g. part-time, flexible daily hours, compressed working weeks) and remote flexibility (e.g. working from home, telecommuting).
The benefits of work flexibility
Once upon a time, work flexibility used to be a 'woman's issue', exclusively a debate for working moms. Today, it is on top of the list of Millennials and Gen Z-ers when considering a job. If people increasingly desire work flexibility this is surely because it allows them to live richer lives by having more control of their work, family, leisure time, relationships and activities. Flexibility is also good for companies. It is associated with positive work outcomes such as attraction and retention of talent and enhanced organizational commitment and job performance. Flexibility is also good for society. It enables children to develop fuller relationships with both parents, in particular fathers, by allowing men to be more involved in caregiving. Equally important, work flexibility encourages diversity and closes the gender gap by empowering women to reach leadership positions and advance in STEM fields.
So before Covid-19, why weren't all companies jumping on the bandwagon? For example, a Deloitte study across 1,000 office workers in Switzerland found that while 72% of employees have flexible working hours, only 39% are allowed to work where they want. Surprisingly, only 39% of the surveyed employees reported that their company had publishedformal guidelines about flexible work arrangements (FWA).
We set out to understand how companies incorporate work flexibility into the workplace. We dived deeper to comprehend why in some companies FWA are accessible and regularly used by employees, while in others they are not, despite similar parameters (such as industry, nature of business, function and hierarchical level of employees). Taking a phenomenological approach, we conducted almost two dozen semi-structured in-depth interviews with executives, managers and employees working in small-and-medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) located in the French-speaking part of Switzerland.
Our study revealed that it all starts with people's mindset about flexibility. Within the context of our study, a mindset is a frame of reference, a mental model versus cognitive processes to achieve a task (Gollwitzer, 1990) or beliefs about talent (Dweck & Hong, 1995). We found that managerial mindset about flexibility can be different from employee mindset. While leaders do acknowledge the benefits (as stated above) of flexibility, the perceived lack of control over their staff prevents them from fully embracing the idea. Leaders are more open to flexibility when expectations are clear and when they trust their employees and believe they are self-disciplined. Likewise, employees recognize the benefits of flexibility on wellbeing and work-life balance. Yet, the flexibility stigma impedes them from asking for it. So when it comes to work flexibility, leaders and employees are not on the same page. Flexibility is perceived as a privilege, entitled by those individuals who have the courage to ask for it and is provided on a case-by-case basis. If companies are serious about responding to the growing demand for work flexibility, as voiced by the younger generation, then it's necessary to get the basics right. This means changing mindsets about flexibility: ceasing to view it as loss of power and starting to see it instead as a way of enabling employees to live fuller lives that ultimately benefit the company too.
Tips on how to successfully implement work flexibility
- Instead of having a boss or HR decide which functions and positions should be flexible, employees should be included in this decision-making process as much as possible. Start small if you are hesitant, choosing one specific department to test the waters. Carefully design your approach as to include people who are willing to contribute to the success of transitioning into flexibility mode. Employees are the ones who know best about the reality of their jobs, the resources they require, the constraints they face and the support they need in order to perform well. So don't do the thinking for them. Be inclusive and involve them in the process of identifying if their jobs - or parts of it - can be flexible and how this flexibility can be operationalized while getting the job done and meeting organizational goals. You will soon see creativity flourish.
- For those employees who want flexibility, accompany them in their flexibility transition phase. While providing different types of FWA is important, we know from research that a culture (and a boss) that allows and encourages such arrangements matter more than just the policies or directives. People need to learn how to function in flexibility-mode no matter the type of flexibility. So go beyond the "You are allowed to do home office once a week." to "Here is how to get started and some best practices for effective remote working. Share with us what has worked for you via this exchange platform so that your colleagues can also benefit from your experience."
- For the employees who don't want flexibility, don't force it (unless it becomes part of a company's strategic decision), instead, inform them about alternative ways of working in anticipation of a future crisis. The flexibility that has come with the Covid-19 crisis has unleashed both creativity and chaos when 'going remote'. Creativity - because it has fostered different ways of thinking about how to work, get organized, communicate and collaborate; in particular for individuals with other responsibilities like managing a household with a spouse who also works and child/elderly care. Chaos - because not everyone was ready for it; some employees had to wrestle with limited technological capacity, (perhaps none at all), along with shoddy support from their employer and were therefore ill-equipped to work from home successfully.
While it is anybody's guess when Covid-19 will dissipate, it is not the first or the last global crisis. So let's embrace flexibility - starting with the right mindset - in order to respond to a growing demand from the younger workforce while preparing ourselves better for a volatile, uncertain and ambiguous future.
Dweck, C. Chi, Y. & Hong, Y. 1995. Implicit theories: Elaboration and extension of the model. Psychological Inquiry, 6(4): 322-333.
Gollwitzer, P.M. (1990), "Action phases and mind-sets", in Higgins, E.T. and Sorrentino, R.M. (Eds), The Handbook of Motivation and Cognition: Foundations of Social Behavior, Guilford Press, New York, NY, Vol. 2, pp. 52-92.