According to a recent survey of more than 32,000 workers from 17 countries, nearly two thirds of today’s workforce would consider looking for a new job if they were required to return to the office full time. In response to this growing demand for flexible work, many organizations are embracing new ways of working — but it’s not always obvious how to give people the flexibility they want and need while still ensuring you achieve your business objectives.
In particular, flexible work arrangements can pose a challenge when it comes to measuring and tracking performance, as traditional approaches often rely on the assumption that the majority of work is conducted in person, during regular working hours. To make flex work work, leaders may need to rethink what kinds of visibility their organizations need to succeed.
As the head of the Productivity Lab at workforce analytics company ActivTrak, this is a question my team and I have spent a lot of time researching. We’ve analyzed data on application usage, context switching, and other factors that can impact productivity from more than 50,000 employees over more than two years. These analyzes have helped us better understand how teams are navigating and responding to the challenges of hybrid work — and identify the best practices that can benefit everyone.
There’s More Than One Kind of Flexibility
Ensuring productivity, achieving business objectives, and meeting the needs of your workforce all require visibility into your organization. But how you maintain that visibility depends on the type of flexibility you intend to implement, and so the first step in developing effective visibility practices is to determine which type of flex work will be the best fit for your organization. My research has identified a few common types:
- Universal flexibility: In-office and remote days are fixed across the organization
- Variable flexibility: Scheduling decisions are made at the team level and may be different across the organization
- Case-by-case flexibility: Individuals set their own schedules and adhere to them consistently
- Fluid flexibility: Individuals work wherever and whenever they want, with no location constraints
Eleven leaders have clearly established the kind of flexibility they intend to offer, they can shift their focus to understanding how employees work within that paradigm, and what it will take to support them effectively in this new flexible setting.
Different People Have Different Visibility Needs
This effort must start by recognizing that executives, managers, and individual contributors all require visibility into daily work to do their jobs effectively — but exactly what type of visibility they need varies significantly. When implementing new policies and social norms for visibility, it is critical to avoid blanket solutions that might be perceived as being overreaching or unaccommodating for the various people involved, thus eroding trust. Specific visibility requirements will of course vary organization to organization, but in general, my team’s research has identified the following common needs:
senior leaders need visibility to ensure strategic alignment, effective cross-collaboration, and coordination across the organization. In addition to managing business operations, these leaders are also responsible for ensuring healthy (and sustainable) levels of employee engagement and well-being, and so they will typically need access to data such as indicators of burnout, distractions, and workload distribution across teams. . For example, when a leader hears concerns of fatigue, it can be hard to tell whether it’s an issue across the organization, within specific functions, or only for certain employees, such as new hires or tenured managers. Data can help pinpoint leaders who need help, how quickly the problem is spreading, and where they should prioritize immediate action.
Mid-level managers, on the other hand, need more granular visibility. These leaders are uniquely positioned to support the productivity of teams and individual direct reports by coaching them through issues such as distractions, collaboration fatigue, daily routines, and break practices. They are also responsible for identifying training opportunities, matching employees’ capacities and capabilities to the optimal tasks and roles, and managing bandwidth and utilization levels. To surface pressing needs, managers need to do all of this on an ongoing basis (rather than relying solely on biweekly or monthly one-on-ones) — and that needs a deeper level of visibility into employees’ work.
Individual contributors also have visibility needs that can be challenged by the shift to flexible work. In traditional office settings, for example, employees rely on in-person cues such as body language or whether someone has headphones in to infer whether someone is busy or can be interrupted. But remote employees lack these signals, making people much more likely both to unintentionally disrupt each other and to miss opportunities for collaboration. Data about their peers’ focus times and schedule preferences can help employees communicate and work together more effectively.
Once you’ve mapped out what kinds of visibility different stakeholders in your organization need, you can work backwards to determine what kinds of data you’ll need to collect. For example, to understand productivity inhibitors such as fatigue, distractions, or misalignment on collaborative projects, it may make the most sense to focus data collection on total work time, number of context switches, and collaboration tool usage. Rather than attempting to monitor every minute of your employees’ working lives, this approach ensures you’re gathering only the information required to help leaders, managers, and employees identify impediments to working effectively and make meaningful improvements — without corroding trust, invading privacy, or hindering productivity.
Measurement Strategies Must Be Carefully Designed
Of course, designing effective measurement systems is no easy task. Data has the potential to be tremendously useful and produce relevant, actionable insights — but without the right approach, it can also be overwhelming and even misleading.
Consider, for example, data regarding when employees log on and off of their computers. Depending on how this data source is used, it could inform conclusions that lead to dramatically different outcomes. If an organization institutes “average number of hours worked per day” as a performance indicator, leadership may feel compelled to reward employees who work the longest. Of course, how long someone spends logged into their computer is not always an accurate indicator of productivity. Such a system could lead employees to become frustrated, lose trust in leadership, and adopt unproductive behaviors.
But what if instead, the organization used the same data to track “variability of start times” as an indicator of healthy work habits? This could help managers identify employees whose engagement might be suffering and proactively initiate conversations to help them find ways to feel more excited about their work. This metric is more likely to lead to a positive outcome, since it’s inherently less black-and-white: Variation in start time isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it can suggest that something has changed in an employee’s typical routine, and can thus be used to spark a thoughtful conversation between manager and employee.
Smart measurement is essential to understanding the impact of flexibility. As such, it’s important to identify the new performance indicators that will be most relevant and helpful to your organization, and focus your visibility efforts accordingly.
Trust Is Key
As with any major transition, developing and maintaining mutual trust is critical to ensuring success when launching a new approach to visibility. Specifically, there are three components that are necessary to build trust during this shift:
Transparent communication: Both in the planning and implementation stages, leaders must clearly communicate the data they intend to collect, expectations for using this data, and any changes to the strategy along the way.
Access to data and insights: Once they’ve determined how they’ll collect information, it’s important to build processes to ensure that information is shared with all intended stakeholders in a timely fashion, and in a way that feels relevant to and supportive of the work at hand.
Action and real-time adjustments: Finally, leaders must take action based on the data they collect. This also means collaborating with managers and employees to identify opportunities for continuous improvement and building feedback loops that integrate employee reactions, business outcomes, and input from other leaders and experts.
Of course, there are more and less effective ways to implement each of these three elements. Without a bare minimum level of transparency, access, and data-driven action, employers run the risk of exploiting employees and losing their trust entirely. But the most effective leaders move beyond this minimum and actively empower all relevant stakeholders to take an active role in improving their own workflows and addressing organization-wide challenges. The following table illustrates this spectrum of approaches and their impact on leaders’ ability to build trust:
If employers don’t have the visibility they need, they will miss valuable opportunities to provide training, optimize workflows, and invest in critical new technologies. But if employees don’t have flexibility they need, they will lose trust in their leaders, grow frustrated with the lack of autonomy, and become less engaged. The challenge today’s leaders face is to carefully consider these interconnected dynamics, and to identify and implement the forms of flexibility and visibility that will empower their teams and be most effective for their business.