June 16, 2021

Redefining flexibility — A conversation with Kelly Battelle

In this third installment of the “Redefining work” series, we continue to consider this question: How will our workplaces change for the better as a result of the immense challenges of the last year? When COVID-19 forced most of us to adjust to a work-from-home lifestyle, perceptions of where and when employees can work effectively changed drastically.

Up to that point, many companies thought of flexibility as a perk — something nice to have in theory but vulnerable to abuse. Now it’s a necessity. People have proven they can stay productive while working remotely or on non-traditional hours, and they expect their jobs to provide the flexibility they need for their quality of life. As the labor market becomes more competitive than ever, those that aren’t getting it from their current employer will go elsewhere.

For a more on-the-ground perspective, we spoke with Kelly Battelle, Chief People Officer at GumGum. Battelle shared that the pandemic disrupted a thriving culture at GumGum’s Santa Monica office. “People were going out to lunch together, there were dogs in the office, and we had intentionally created a creative, fun office to be in. We didn’t abandon any rituals, we just transitioned them to work for us as we transitioned to working from home, but still, it’s not the same.”

Like many companies navigating a return to the office, GumGum is hearing that team members are concerned about losing flexibility, Battelle said. She points out that the term “hybrid workplace” is too vague to be helpful: “There are ten versions of the hybrid model. Will there be required days for people to come into work? Will employees come into the office whenever they like? What does it really mean to everyone?”

Where possible, facilitate successful re-entry by offering as many choices and options as you can. Two years ago, this might have been unthinkably risky, but today we know the importance of trusting our people, many of whom have worked hard for over a year to earn that confidence.

As Battelle and the GumGum team navigate these questions and decisions, they also explore what it would mean to re-organize the physical office. Options many companies are considering include hot desks and lockers for more efficient sharing of space, adding additional meeting rooms, and investing in better virtual conference technology.

Battelle adds, “I think about the meeting after the meeting, when we turn off the Zoom and walk down the hall and discuss it further.” The informal conversations she’s describing can be very impactful as sources of innovation and bonding. A hybrid setup creates inequities — some team members will get to participate in these moments of serendipity, while others will be left out.

This isn’t possible to fully recreate in a hybrid environment — and, in fact, some remote employees may relish their uninterrupted heads-down time. Managers should have conversations with their reports about how they prefer to have the kind of impromptu non-urgent conversations that happen all the time in an office. Are they the type to hop on a video call, or hash things out on Slack in real-time, or would they rather “hold that thought” for your next scheduled meeting?

Where to begin? Battelle suggests starting with a pulse survey to understand how your people are feeling about remote work and the possibility of returning to the office. What has them excited, what are their concerns, and what’s their ideal solution? Of course, set expectations that you’ll have to weigh these considerations against other factors, like existing lease agreements and client needs.

If your company hasn’t redefined its notion of flexibility, you should know that your employees already have. The way forward will require leaders to be more trusting, open-minded, and willing to put power in the hands of employees to advocate for their needs.

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