As the flexible work experts at FlexJobs point out, companies that allow their employees to work flexibly reap the rewards of increased productivity, lower stress levels, healthier employees, and more engaged workforces, among other net positives. Couple this with the fact that millennials, who make up the largest generation in the workforce, have a particular thirst for flexibility at work, and it’s no wonder that more and more companies have started adopting flexible work policies.
Professional services giant PwC has been at the forefront of flex for a few years now, and this year the company is celebrating the fifth anniversary of its formal flexible work policy. While PwC today views flexible work as a critical policy worth celebrating, it wasn’t always that way.
“I can work from anywhere, and many of our people can frequently work from anywhere,” says Anne Donovan, PwC’s people innovation leader. “I think in the old days, I used to hide that. I didn’t think it was important for anyone to know where I was. I knew I could do my job from anywhere, and I just sort of kept that under the radar.”
Donovan jokingly refers to PwC’s flex policy in those days as “closet flexibility” – people had flexible work options, but no one really talked about.
“Now, I have gotten leaders to talk about it; I have gotten PwC to talk about it,” Donovan says. “I do think we can do it more, and the more we do it, the more permission it gives to others to do it. It opens the floodgates.”
Today, flexible work is a “brand-defining” aspect of PwC’s business and culture, according to Donovan. In fact, when she and I spoke, she had just finished wrapping up a company-coordinated Snapchat shoot meant to shine a light on her own flexible work lifestyle. (“I wore my best pajamas – but I was still in my pajamas,” Donovan says of the session with a laugh.)
Rod Adams, U.S. recruitment leader at PwC, agrees with Donovan that flexible work is good for PwC’s employer brand.
“Flexibility allows us to create a positive work experience for our people,” Adams says. “Teams work together to come up with what works best for them – even during busy seasons. We continually celebrate flexibility and hold one another accountable to have discussions and stick to agreed-upon flexibility plans, making adjustments along the way as needed.”
Flexible work now plays a starring role in PwC’s recruitment efforts, too.
“We share stories of how teams and individuals work flexibly – focusing on how it’s not a one-size-fits-all concept,” Adams says. “It enables us to talk to our candidates about how at PwC, we’re encouraged to share with each other what’s important to us and to speak up about our needs without the guilt. Family commitments or personal interests don’t need to take a back seat to having a successful career.”
“All of our competitors are talking about flexibility at this point, but from a brand perspective, we’ve been at it for five years,” Donovan adds. “We really have changed the culture. Where we might have not been able to spell ‘flexibility’ five or six years ago, we are absolutely known for it now and talk about in our interviews the kind of flexibility you can have.”
Want to take a page from PwC’s playbook and make flexible work a core component of your organization and your recruiting strategy? Here are the five lessons PwC has learned about flexibility over the years:
1. Flexibility Is Different for Everyone
Donovan doesn’t refer to PwC’s flexible work arrangements as a “program” because flexibility “is different for everyone,” and any successful flexible work policy will need to account for this fact.
“When we started talking about flex and pushing it out to PwC workers, we didn’t try to put any parameters around it,” Donovan says. “It’s up to our own people to make it work.”
2. Empower Your Teams to Make Flexible Work Decisions for Themselves
By “up to our own people to make it work,” Donovan doesn’t mean PwC is a free-for-all. Rather, she means that the organization eschews a top-down approach in favor of team-based forms of flexibility. Before the start of a project, each team creates a “flexibility plan” that meets the needs of individual team members while ensuring the project is completed on time and with high quality.
“It’s a back-of-the-napkin kind of thing, nothing formal,” Donovan says. “Those people together know what they need to accomplish, and they can figure out what everybody needs to be happy. They make it work for each other.”
While Donovan notes it doesn’t work 100 percent of the time, she says that it does work the vast majority of the time.
“We’re not perfect, but we are lightyears ahead of where we were five years ago,” she says.
3. Flexibility Is a Collaborative and Team-Based Effort
Because flexibility is different for everyone, making it work for all requires that each team member helps the others get the flexibility they need.
“You can’t do this alone,” Donovan says. “You have to speak up for what you want, but then you have to help the team get what they want and they will help you get what you want, too.”
This one-for-all, all-for-one mentality means employees are willing to make sacrifices for one another to ensure that each team member gets some flexibility.
“If someone wants to go to yoga on Tuesday night and gets to go, and someone else wants to play softball on Thursday and doesn’t get to for some reason, in general, that’s okay,” Donovan says. “It’s okay because it will work the next week; that person will get to go to softball.”
4. If You Trust Your Employees, You Should Let Them Work From Home
For Donovan, it’s a no-brainer: If you trust your employees enough to handle important business tasks, why wouldn’t you trust them enough to handle those tasks outside of the office?
“We trust our people with big things when you think about our firm,” Donovan says. “Our clients are trusting us with financial information, trusting us to give them advice. How can we then say – even to very junior staff – ‘We don’t trust you to work at home.’ Those don’t go hand in hand.”
And if you do have an employee you can’t trust to work from home? Then chances are you have a much bigger problem on your hands than implementing flexible work policies.
5. Flexibility Is Critical to Company Success
PwC began exploring flexible work options as a way to woo and retain millennial workers, but the company quickly found workers of all generations enjoyed having the ability to work flexibly.
“What we found was, once we opened the floodgates, everyone benefits,” Donovan says. “We have found it to be absolutely critical to our success as a firm and our retention of people, because this is what people want – people of all generations.”
It’s Not Always Easy: Overcoming the Challenges of Implementing Flexible Work
PwC’s entire workforce from the entry level to the senior executives didn’t just wake up one day and embrace flexibility. On the path to becoming a leader in workplace flexibility, PwC had to face its fair share of challenges.
“The biggest challenge is letting go of what seems like control,” Donovan says.
She is referring to the feeling some managers have that when you let employees work outside of the office, you give up a certain amount of control over the outcome of their work. As a result, managers fear, employees’ work product will decline in quality.
In reality, the opposite is often true: Letting employees work flexibly and outside of the office can actually boost productivity and performance.
Another roadblock is what Donovan calls “the fairness question” – or, as she puts it more concretely: “If I let Susie go to yoga tonight, I’ll have to let everyone go to yoga tonight.”
According to Donovan, managers and leaders need not worry much about the fairness question because it tends to be “self-balancing” – that is, team members will help each other get the flexibility they need while also ensuring there are enough hands on deck to get work done when it needs to get done.
“Ultimately theres an element of ‘try it and see,’” Donovan says of implementing flexible work. “You have to flex that muscle – no pun intended – and once you flex that muscle, you’ll realize it is going to self-balance, but that is a hard part of starting that journey.”