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How to navigate the many facets of work flexibility

January 27, 2023


By Richard Thompson
Global Head of ESG and Employee Experience, CWT

CWT is delighted to have been named one of the top 100 companies to watch for remote jobs, according to FlexJobs. This announcement is an output of months of hard work at CWT to increase flexibility at work for our 12,000 or so colleagues around the world.

But as soon as I type (or read) the word “flexibility”, that’s when the trouble starts. Media pundits often fall into the trap of looking at flexibility in terms of opposites: home versus office, for example. As if decision-making required picking one over another—and that anything in the middle is an unsatisfactory compromise. Thinking in terms of opposites is dangerous, because unconsciously it pits worldviews and the people who have them against each other. It makes for great headlines but creates division within a workforce. 

When it comes to work location, for example, remote work is here to stay. But so is office work. And hybrid work. Because companies need all options. And we have them at CWT. In fact, there are multiple dimensions of work flexibility. Each dimension is an axis with two endpoints. There’s a spatial/location axis of flexibility. There is also a time axis, a work intensity axis, a type of work axis. A labor law axis. A workstyle axis. A seasonal axis. A caregiver axis.

All these dimensions of flexibility can be visualized as a spider or scatter chart. At any given point in someone’s career—or even in a given day—the optimum “flexibility profile” is determined by a wide variety of personal and professional factors, ranging from job responsibilities and individual identity to family situation and country of residence. 

The complexity of it all makes your head spin. You’ll hear HR veterans and senior leaders say: “it was so much easier in the old days when things were simpler”. I would posit that they were simpler because they were less inclusive of individual realities. Those days are gone. 

Polarizing, headline-grabbing, sweeping generalizations aren’t helpful. Which is why we turned to the very global, multinational nature of our workforce, our business needs, and our culture for answers. Long story short: flexibility is a key component of the employee experience because it correlates closely to two highly prized traits at CWT: inclusion and agility. Inclusion is about creating space for the diverse individualities of our colleagues. Agility is about being able to handle the evolving diversity of our business challenges. It’s a competitive advantage. 

CWT’s work requires a complex blend of roles staffed by people with unique flexibility profiles. Increase options for flexibility and you increase inclusion and agility. Flexible work allows access to a more diverse talent pool and leadership pipeline. In a nutshell this is what we are carefully and methodically trying to build at CWT through our Model of Work project that offers a greater level of flexibility in remote, office-based and hybrid working arrangements to a broader range of employees than before the pandemic. What we expect to see are measurable gains in employee engagement, retention and productivity. Flexibility becomes a source of value rather than a source of dispute. Getting there is exciting and challenging, but we firmly believe it’s worth every ounce of sweat.  

3 hallmarks of a flexible work culture

I’m a big proponent of having guiding principles to steer the design of complex projects. These 3 have always been top of mind when working on the multiple facets of flexibility at CWT:

  1. Ditch the dogma. There are lots of personal beliefs about how work should be organized. Favor evidence and experiment over anecdote and Ns of one. 
  2. Build personas. Take inspiration from design thinking. You are building flexibility for real people so use personas to see them as human beings with real needs, thoughts, and goals in addition to their roles on an org chart. 
  3. Be methodical to go fast. Making global decrees without first understanding the art of the possible country by country is a recipe for disaster. Methodically engage local stakeholders to avoid having to roll-back hasty announcement and to ensure equitable outcomes.