Work Away From Work

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Has Covid-19 changed our work environments forever? And should it?

Companies have been flirting with flextime for some time now.

   Unlimited vacation days. Work-life balance mantras. Meditation Mondays. Summer Fridays.

   There are even companies like Goodwin Media in Highland and 97th Floor in Lehi that have upped the stakes. Goodwin’s employees have worked 100% remotely for years. And 97th Floor succeeds with a ROWE-based work environment, where they rely on results rather than punch clocks.

   Covid-19, meanwhile, has made companies move past the NCMO phase with flextime and head to a very committed relationship with work-from-home.

   “In almost a year, Covid did what it would have taken decades to prove — that remote working works,” says Tessa White, owner of The Job Doctor in Lehi. “Companies can offer flexibility, and the job will still get done — and done well.”

   This unprecedented year of decades-worthy research will likely change our 9-to-5 world.

   “The pandemic is going to shift the way work is done forever,” says Dr. Susan Madsen, founding director of the Utah Women and Leadership Project. “Companies aren’t going to make everyone go back to sitting at their desk every single day. They’ll get creative and innovative — and families will be better for it.”

   Read on as we discuss the pros and challenges of this shift for Utah Valley’s business community — and, in particular, what it could mean for one of the most under-utilized groups in the workforce: Women.

2020: A MAJOR FLEX

   The year 2020 has been called many things: hard, humbling, stressful, weird, a disappointment, a disaster, the
worst
.

   And yet … it could also be called an opportunity.

   Virtually (literally) overnight, workplaces across Utah and America began to “work away from work.” Kitchen tables turned into makeshift offices, toddlers swatted at keyboards, high schoolers got a degree in giving their new “teachers” eye rolls, and we all perfected the “Zoom Mullet” of blazers on top, sweats on bottom.

   Even with all these distractions (and, oh yes, the stressful unknowns of a worldwide pandemic), the work typically got done. Video conferencing took center stage, Slack picked up the breakroom chatter slack, and it was confirmed that some meetings could have always just been an email. (Insert shocked emoji face here.)

   Historically, companies have (even rightfully) been skeptical of trusting employees to work from home. But the pandemic’s forced work experiment has been illuminating — and in record time, too. 

   The Utah Women and Leadership Project at USU released a study this December called “Flexible and Family-Friendly Policies at Utah’s ‘Best Places to Work.’” The results are enlightening and empowering.

   “Utah’s ‘best places to work’ are seeing numerous benefits from offering flexible and family-friendly arrangements to their employees,” the study cites. “Mirroring national reports about employees’ desire for greater workplace flexibility, the vast majority of respondents are seeing higher employee satisfaction and increased retention.”

   Adds founding director of UWLP, Dr. Susan Madsen: “Flexibility and employee loyalty certainly go hand in hand,” she says. “As a working mother for many years, this doesn’t surprise me. But seeing these numbers confirmed is huge. It’s everything.”   

RESULTS WANTED

   In UWLP’s research survey of Utah’s top places to work (conducted in the fall of 2020), the reported benefits of a flexible work environment are overwhelmingly positive.

   94.4% cited higher employee satisfaction.

 
79.8%
cited increased employee retention.

   71.9% cited higher employee engagement.

   65.2% cited increased productivity.

   60.1% cited improved recruitment success/higher quality candidates.

   33.7% cited increased profitability.

    On the long-term impact of these findings, one survey participant put it this way: “As many of our employees have transitioned to work-from-home during the pandemic, we have experienced increased productivity, satisfaction, and retention. Although remote work wasn’t a strategic employment practice prior to the pandemic, it will be in the future.”

     

WOMEN AT WORK

   Tessa White was a single mom who hadn’t planned to work.

   “I had no education, and I had to figure out how to put food on the table and keep a roof over our heads,” says White, who went on to have a successful career in HR and now regularly donates a portion of her company’s profits to mentor and support other working women. “Our culture makes us think women are at home, and that’s just not always the case. We have to prepare women for the workforce. We have to support programs that uplift them. We have to create a value proposition that gives women who want to work an opportunity to excel. Women have been pleading with employers for years — ‘Give me flexibility, and I’ll be the most loyal, hard-working employee you’ve ever seen.’”

   Here, the UWLP study shares the hard history (and hopeful future) of flextime: “Flexibility and family-friendly policies have traditionally been a double-edged sword for working women. Though such offerings have made it possible for some mothers to remain in the workforce, taking advantage of such programs has often placed women on the ‘mommy-track,’ where they are seen as being less committed to their careers.”

   But with Covid-19 changing the game, it can also change that trajectory.

   “Utah has struggled for years to keep and retain good female talent — especially in areas of STEM,” Dr. Madsen says. “Schedule flexibility gives women more choices. It gives women the opportunity to not just find a job, but to cultivate a career.”

   And the more women join men in leadership roles, the better.

   “The research is clear: When you have men and women working together, you have more innovation, more creativity, and more capacity for problem solving,” Dr. Madsen says. “Those differing perspectives are a game-changer for a company’s bottom line.”

A NEW GENERATION

   These flextime benefits certainly aren’t just for women. In today’s world, men increasingly value the ability to be available to and present with their families. 

   “Generational attitudes have begun to transform this landscape somewhat over the past decade, as millennial workers are more likely than Baby Boomers or Gen-X to consider workplace flexibility to be essential,” UWLP says. “This shift, combined with a growing emphasis on the value of diversity within organizations, has created momentum toward increasing these types of offerings.”

   What’s more, the study shares that historically, men have received backlash for utilizing even approved family-friendly benefits like paternity leave and flextime.    

   Much like 2020’s difficulties, those trends belong in the past. 

   “Too often we look at flexibility as just a women’s issue. It’s not,” Dr. Madsen says. “It’s a family issue, a societal issue. We have to do better.”

ZOOM + GLOOM

   Of course there are challenges with flextime work — to say otherwise would be naive. But that doesn’t mean they’re not worth working through.

   Among the complications cited by UWLP’s study?

   60.3% cited a loss of culture and/or employees feeling disconnected.

   59% cited logistical challenges (i.e. managing schedules, workspaces, equipment).

   51.3% cited communication challenges.

   32.1% cited increased costs.

   The challenge of communication, culture, and camaraderie is an important one — and something businesses would need to purposefully and methodically work to address.

   However, the study brings up a good point: How much of the disconnect is flextime? And how much is working through a global pandemic and shifting environments overnight?

   “As this study was conducted during Covid-19,” it explains, “it is possible these shortcomings are linked to pandemic-specific stressors rather than to challenges simply related to flexible workplace arrangements.”

   Additional research — post-pandemic — will be needed.

WORK SWEET WORK

   Dr. Madsen’s personal take?

   “In my estimation, the ideal is two to three days a week at home, and two to three days a week at the office,” she says. “The better the variety, the better the communication, engagement, and productivity will be. That’s the sweet spot.”

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