3 Do's and Don'ts for creating workplace flexibility in non-obvious industries
As I sit in a cafe, as I frequently do, with my laptop in front of me and a v60 coffee in hand, I am reminded of one argument that always stops me from boasting that the future of work is remote: it’s privileged and only for knowledge workers.
At this point, it is well known that for those who have the tools and technology to do so, a degree of flexibility and autonomy is becoming an expectation. In fact, a McKinsey study highlights “when people have the chance to work flexibly, 87 percent of them take it.”
The case for flexible working is clear: it has the potential to boost motivation, allow for increased productivity through energy management, and create opportunities for DEIB, but unfortunately, as my own observations have shown, not all industries are created equal when it comes to reaping the benefits of remote work flexibility.
A recent study, the Flex Report, presented by Scoop, interviewed 4,000 companies employing more than 100 million people in aggregate, confirming the obvious fact that flexibility is more rampant in certain industries than others. The Flex Report verifies that "nearly 80% of technology companies identify as fully flexible, the highest of any industry surveyed. Professional Services, Media & Entertainment, Financial Services, and Insurance round out the top five."
So who rounded out the bottom of the list? As you might expect, industries that require some in-person interaction have the least amount of flexibility. That might include the tangible sale of goods or services (e.g., retail, with 73% fully on-site), in-person experiences (restaurants or hospitality, with 82% and 71% fully on-site), or those with physical requirements of the work itself (such as manufacturing or healthcare, at 69% and 59%, respectively).
There was one surprise, however, which was that even in the three most remote-resistant industries – restaurants, retail, and hospitality – there were still a few companies offering flexible working arrangements. Digging deeper offers insight into how non-obvious industries may choose to offer employee flexibility in the future.
Similar to other industries, smaller companies offer more flexibility than large companies. Approximately 47% of companies with under 500 employees offer either Fully Flexible (40%) or Hybrid options in the restaurant, hospitality, and retail sectors, compared to a total of 65% Fully Flexible across all industries.
While the preference in the restaurant, hospitality, and retail sectors is on-site, when given the option between Fully Flexible and Structured Hybrid, more companies opt for a Fully Flexible (~70%) to a Structured Hybrid (~30%) model, regardless of company size. One hypothesis for this industry's fully flexible-leaning preference is a division of roles between customer-facing jobs in physical locations (e.g., hotels and restaurants themselves) and the corporate employee who frequently travels for work between locations without the need for an expensive central office.
Within these on-site industries, small companies (under 100 employees) that were Fully Flexible operated a business geared more toward service-based or online business models such as Swag.com, an online marketplace for custom branded gear, or Hungry Harvest, a produce delivery service.
There is room for improvement
Even though there are constraints for certain in-person roles across industries, looking at best practices of remote-ready industries can introduce some learning opportunities that can be adjusted accordingly.
Below are the 3 DO’s and DON'TS of offering workplace flexibility in non-obvious industries.
DO have clear expectations by role: It's essential to establish clear expectations from the job description on what tasks fall under the scope of each position, including a breakdown of which tasks can be completed off-site. In a retail company, for example, there could be three distinct tiers: a sales associate, whose job it is to interact with customers and operate the cash register, should be present on-site; a sales manager, who may choose to complete administrative tasks such as scheduling or employee reviews remotely; and a regional manager, who may occasionally visit stores but will primarily interact with colleagues virtually. Similar to this, a restaurant's chef may be able to plan the menu and inventory from any location, but actual cooking must take place in the kitchen.
DON’T forget about DEIB implications: The challenge for HR and people operations leaders is to make sure there is a transparent and equitable process for determining who qualifies for remote-work benefits and that it is without discrimination or bias. There should be safeguards in place to make sure that promotions in rank, and subsequently more flexible options, do not disregard underrepresented groups. Digital Houses should be created in a way to ensure fair access to resources and HR strategies need to consider benefits are provided in an equitable manner. Most importantly, if flexible working arrangements will not be considered for an employee, the sole justification for rejecting these arrangements is the requirement of the role itself, not other implicit considerations.
DO leverage the power of tools & technology to make work more flexible and autonomous: Even for those employees who need to perform the tasks of their role on-site, best practices around leveraging scheduling tools and collaboration and communication platforms from leading remote companies can solve challenges such as employee scheduling and last-minute shift coverage. Having a bottom-up approach where employees can sign up for open slots allows them to be physically present at work according to their working style preferences, such as a desire for morning or evening shifts or other personal preferences and obligations. Similarly, having a clear communication channel and process to request a colleague fill in at the last minute can help reduce the stress, time, and effort of finding someone to cover that shift. Shift Med is an example of a company in the healthcare industry offering this business model; matching healthcare professionals and providers in an Uber-esque on-demand staffing platform, and the popular USA retail-chain Target has offered “on-demand” scheduling through an internal app since 2021.
As a final bonus, remember, don’t try to be one-size-fits-all. As many companies and industries move to provide increased flexibility, it is the intentionality that will set them apart – for companies looking to offer increased flexibility, it is imperative that they set clear expectations, hone in on processes that work for them, and communicate this clearly to employees—all things discussed in our book Remote Works: Managing for Freedom, Flexibility, and Focus.
For employees and job-seekers, The Flex Index will be a resource to shine a light on trends in flexibility, focusing on enabling job-seekers to find opportunities that match the right level of flexibility for them.
Author Byline: Ali Greene
Ali Greene is the coauthor of Remote Works: Managing for Freedom, Flexibility, and Focus. A remote worker since 2014, she was previously the Director of People Operations for DuckDuckGo and the former Head of Culture and Community at Oyster. Ali can be found at remoteworksbook.com