Every Tuesday at 7:30 a.m. Pacific Time, I join a video conference call with leadership colleagues from across the country. I’m on the West Coast, so these meetings are always early for me. When I started joining them more than 10 years ago, I was up early to ensure that I looked polished and ready to conquer the day before I got on the video conference. These days, I find myself forgoing dressing up or putting on makeup before dialing in. I no longer think twice about being on video from the comfort of my living room and in my morning sweatshirt. And, as I say good morning to my colleagues, it’s apparent that I’m not the only one.
It hasn’t always been this way. Our company has come a long way over the past decade by truly instilling a culture of flexibility across the firm. We now have the ability to work in a way that fits our personal lives and, if that means taking an early morning video call at home in our sweatpants, then so be it.
When others ask me how we did it, I’m honest. This did not happen overnight. It wasn’t easy, there were growing pains along the way, and we’re still learning. Here’s some of what we learned along the way that we hope other companies can benefit from:
You need to toss out the rule book. To build a culture of flexibility, you must first reimagine what flexibility means today. Remember, to create behavior change, you need to allow for variance and creativity and agility. In other words, be “flexible” when creating a flexibility culture. A policy guide or a formal program can work against you. It seems counterintuitive, but having rules in place actually hinders the development of a truly authentic culture. At PwC, we loosely call it “everyday flexibility.” It isn’t something we mandate that all teams adopt; it’s a mentality and a way of life that should be individualized for each person.
Flexibility for a caregiver might mean being able to leave work early to take an elderly parent to a doctor’s appointment. For a parent, it might mean taking a midday run, so evenings can be spent with their children. And for others, it could simply be taking an hour in the afternoon to go to a yoga class and recharge. When we look at flexibility this way, it’s easy to see why formal rules actually hinder adoption and progress. It’s impossible to have a one-size-fits-all approach for flexibility. We let our teams figure out what works best for them, as long as they deliver excellent work, on time. The rest is all fair game.
Everyone deserves the same degree of flexibility. Flexibility is not related to a generational need. Every employee, at any age, benefits from and is looking for its availability. A culture of flexibility will not be created, adopted, or embraced unless the origination stems from an understanding and belief that every single person in the organization deserves the same consideration and flex work policies. This isn’t about one segment of the workforce, so if you’re sending out any kind of internal communications materials about flexibility, make sure it speaks to all employees. After all, we are a diverse workforce made up of diverse people, from working moms and dads to thousands of others without children who also want flexibility. One person’s reasons for needing flexibility are not any more important or any less important than any another person’s.
When it comes to flexibility, trust is not earned. It is not uncommon for managers to tell me that they believe in allowing employees to work flexibly, if and only when they’ve been with the firm a certain amount of time and earned that trust. This is when I remind people that we place our trust in employees from the moment they start working for us, so why wouldn’t that same theory apply when it comes to flexibility? If you trust an individual enough that you hired them to join your organization, you also should trust them to get the work done when and where they prefer, as long as they meet deadlines. I challenge all managers to take this approach.
Flexibility is a two-way street. A strong culture starts from the very top. For example, when our CEO started wearing jeans to work, it sent a message to all of our people that it’s okay to dress casually. That said, that is only where it starts. The action comes from the bottom up.
I often travel to speak to groups of our newly promoted senior associates. For most of these individuals, this is the first time they are stepping into a supervisory role. At the same time, they are still being supervised. They have a unique opportunity to empower direct reports, while putting pressure on managers to do the right thing for their teams. In these moments, I am reminded of the tremendous power our people hold in strengthening flexibility across the firm.
For us, flexibility is not about working less, but it is about encouraging people to work differently. It’s a two-way street. We give our people the flexibility they need when they need it, and sometimes, we need them to give more when business demands require it. When done right, flexibility results in a happier, healthier, and more productive workforce. And it helps attract the best employees, and makes them want to stick around
Anne Donovan is the U.S. People Experience Leader at PwC (PricewaterhouseCoopers), where she is a key senior leader responsible for strategy and innovation around culture change. She has a strong background in operational effectiveness and in engaging people to lead positive change.
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