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What PwC Learned from Its Policy of Flexible Work for Everyone

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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How to Regain the Lost Art of Reflection

Schedule Time for Reflective Thinking Every Week

A famous but possibly apocryphal tale about Albert Einstein is that he dreamed up the theory of relativity when riding his bicycle. Warren Buffett is on record as saying that he reads for six hours per day and has very few scheduled meetings. Both of these examples stand in stark contrast to the ways in which most leaders use their time. Many are slaves to email (one CEO only half-jokingly defines his job as “answering 2,000 emails a day”) and have much of the remainder of their time filled with meetings. But a focus on information processing, reaction, and execution — while it may feel productive — causes the quality of our thoughts to suffer. We believe that corporate leaders in today’s complex world urgently need to recultivate the art of reflection.

In reflective thought, a person examines underlying assumptions, core beliefs, and knowledge, while drawing connections between apparently disparate pieces of information. Brain science, popularized in Daniel Kahneman’s book, has shown that this type of “slow thinking” is negatively correlated with “fast thinking,” as might be employed when driving a car or solving a simple sum. In other words, reflective thinking (slow and deliberative) and reactive thinking (fast and instinctual) effectively exist at opposite ends of a switch. When one is “on,” the other is “off.”

Senior executives are victims of information overload and over-reliance on fast thinking. But some CEOs have managed to resist these tendencies. Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg, among others, share Warren Buffett’s discipline to read extensively, safeguard time for personal development projects, and constantly seek new stimulus and perspectives. John Young, Group President of Pfizer Essential Health, remarked to us that reflective thinking improves his decision making by grounding it in a more integrated and coherent world view than one can have from acting only in the moment. From such leaders and from our counseling conversations with CEOs, we suggest some simple principles for leaders to rediscover and unlock the art of reflective thought.

Schedule unstructured thinking time. Time is a precondition for slow thinking. To develop a routine, time for reflection should be a regularly scheduled and a protected event on the leader’s calendar. A 2015 Harvard Business School study showed that CEOs’ schedules typically leave them with as little as 15% of their time for working alone. It is fair to assume that a large proportion of even this modest amount of time is likely consumed by reviewing information and dealing with urgent tactical matters, leaving only a tiny fraction for reflective thinking. A survey of 267 C-level executives at Fortune 500 companies suggests that they dedicate as little as 30 minutes per day for “personal development,” usually late in the evening.

There is no single optimal way to carve out time for unstructured thinking. Some will spread it out over the week: Jeff Weiner, CEO at LinkedIn, blocks between 90 minutes and two hours everyday for reflection and describes those buffers as “the single most important productivity tool” he uses. Susan Hakkarainen, Chairman and co-CEO of Lutron told us, “I use 40-minute walks to reflect and I read articles for personal stimulus and development over my morning coffee.” Yana Kakar, Global Managing Partner of Dalberg, reserves 3 two-hour blocks of time for reflection each week. She comments, “Thinking is the one thing you can’t outsource as a leader. Holding this time sacred in my schedule despite the deluge of calls, meetings, and emails is essential.”

Others concentrate reflection in a single day. Brian Scudamore, the serial entrepreneur at O2E Brands, sets aside all of Monday for thinking and organizing the rest of the week, which is filled with back-to-back meetings. He also creates a suitable environment for deep thinking by not going into the office on Monday. Phil Libin, former Evernote CEO, uses time in airplanes to disconnect from daily work.

Get a coach. The Socratic Method remains the most efficient way to stimulate reflection. To inspire and refine reflective thought, leaders will often benefit from structured dialogue with a trusted partner. If their relationship is strong, this partner can prompt the CEO with questions, observations, and challenges.

The role of the discussion partner is to facilitate the exploration of ideas, to make reflection more productive, and to build reflective habits and capabilities. In Plato’s dialogues, the principal role of Socrates is to ask guiding questions and provide catalytic inputs that lead students to structure their thoughts and articulate their learnings. The method may be even more relevant today than it was in ancient times.

Cultivate a list of questions which prompt reflective thought. Ideas will rarely simply appear to you. Even the most intuitive forms of thinking often require stimulus and inspiration. In the context of business thinking, a list of divergent questions can be a very useful tool for elevating oneself above tactical considerations. Questions can be adapted to resonate with each CEO’s way of thinking, but would typically include ones pertaining to personal vision, strategy, organization, and leadership, such as:

  • What is the purpose of the company?
  • What would I do differently if I could recreate the company from a blank state?
  • What would I do now if there were no legacy constraints on my actions?
  • What do I not know about the industry and the company?
  • What unique value can I add in my role as CEO?
  • What imprint do I wish to create as a leader on employees and other stakeholders?

 

Protect yourself and your organization from information overload. Peter Drucker famously recommended to “follow effective action with quiet reflection.” CEOs should ensure that opportunities for quiet reflection are not crowded out by information overload. Simple solutions are available. Think of email norms: chat and messaging to replace internal emails, limited access to large mailing lists, automatic scheduling of emails during working hours, easy disconnection from non-urgent messages, etc. Thierry Breton, CEO of IT services company Atos, referred to his own experience struggling with emails when he designed and launched a “Zero-email” program in 2011. By the end of 2013, emails were reduced by 60%. They were never fully eradicated, but the initiative is still perceived as a trailblazer, especially as Atos managed to reduce administrative costs from 13 to 10% in the same period.

However, information overload remains a cultural issue, a collective addiction. Communication is often shaped by implicit cultural norms weighing on employees. For instance, what is the email response time expected from subordinates? Making those norms explicit is essential to ensure boundaries are set in an equitable way, and not just at the discretion of every manager. In France, a widely commented upon 2017 law created a “right to disconnect” for employees. In practice, large companies will have to negotiate offline time with their staff, forcing them to have a strategy for electronic communications outside working hours. It is too early to judge the outcome, but if disconnecting on weekends simply leads to overflowing inboxes on Mondays, the law will not solve the problem. For reflective companies, the primary challenge is to ensure that excessive communication does not undermine productivity and prevent reflective thinking. To be effective, communication norms needs to be decided, clarified, embraced, and implemented company wide. We would suggest adopting a variant of an oft quoted adage, “Communicate, communicate, think quietly.”

 

Reimagine yourself as a meta-problem solver. As philosopher Bertrand Russell put it, “there is far too much work done in the world.” Your job as a CEO is to make sure that all work done in your organization is useful and productive, i.e. addresses the right questions.

A meta-problem solver thinks about problem solving. They question the process by which ideas are generated and problems solved, and ensure that the right questions are being addressed in the best manner.

One of the most critical issues for a CEO today is to ensure the relevance of strategies in complex and rapidly changing business environments. The reflective CEO not only questions the strategy itself, but also the suitability of the approach for developing and executing strategy in each situation. Depending on the predictability, malleability, and harshness of the environment, different approaches to strategic thinking are appropriate. Reflective thought is a powerful antidote to the mechanical application of familiar approaches to new situations.

Rather than questioning details of the execution, leaders need to ensure that teams have the right approaches and tools to solve complex problems. If a problem is escalated to you, always ask yourself why your teams were unable to solve it and what you can do to expand their thinking.

Be a role model for your employees. Reflective thinking routines can trickle down the organization with senior executives serving as role models. As part of the radical transparency that he promotes, Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh shares his schedule publicly, thus modeling how he uses his time to others.

The most straightforward way to diffuse habits of reflection is to require people to adopt them. At AOL, Tim Armstrong has simply instructed executives to spend one-tenth of each working week on reflective thinking.

There are also more implicit ways to encourage reflection. At Microsoft, when he was appointed CEO, Satya Nadella was “known for listening, learning, and analyzing.” The behavior he displayed was essential to promote the culture of exploration required to transform the company.

The CEO’s use of time effectively contributes powerfully to the definition of a corporate culture. Reflective thinking should not be the privilege of the enlightened CEO presiding over an organization which merely executes. As automation and artificial intelligence reduce the share of employee time spent on fast thinking and acting, promoting a culture of reflection will be even more critical in creating a sustainable advantage.

By reviving the art of reflection, leaders can reclaim their time, deploy their fully cognitive powers to the increasingly complex challenges they face and, by inspiring the same behavior in others, liberate employees from the corrosive effects of information overload and incessant reactivity.


Martin Reeves is a senior partner and managing director in the Boston Consulting Group’s New York office and the director of the BCG Henderson Institute. He is the coauthor of Your Strategy Needs a Strategy (Harvard Business Review Press, 2015). You may contact him by e-mail at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it. and follow him at @MartinKReeves.


Roselinde Torres is a senior partner in the Boston Consulting Group’s New York office and leads CEO Advisory.


Fabien Hassan is an ambassador to the BCG Henderson Institute.

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