Flexible work was made for times like these. Once seen solely as HR policy or perk, COVID-19 has finally revealed flexibility as both a business continuity and economic recovery strategy. It’s how we’ve kept most businesses and organizations running, creatively serving customers and clients while making sure people are safe and employed.
Flexible work is the way through and the way out of this crisis. It must be front and center of any comprehensive public health and economic recovery plan.
Narratives matter. The fact is, we have not shut down. We’ve slowed down. We don’t need to reopen the economy. We were never closed. Indeed, many businesses — including retailers, restaurants, gyms, movie theaters and other places where large crowds gather — had to shut their doors. But other industries remain open for business, albeit remotely and flexibly.
Yes, that more than 26 million U.S. workers have filed for unemployment during the past five weeks is staggering. But we cannot ignore the tens of millions of employees, both essential and nonessential, who figured out, in real time, how to work remotely and flexibly under extremely disruptive stay-at-home orders.
Like Rosie the Riveter in World War II, these workers rose to the occasion. They may have been shut out of their workplaces, but their work continued. That’s important to acknowledge as we consider what the changing new normal of work and life will look like during and beyond this phase of the pandemic.
Seismic shift in the way we work
This seismic shift in the way we work happened quickly with little time to plan. Practically overnight, more than a quarter of U.S. adults were working from home for the first time, according to Monmouth University. When you rapidly move an entire economy to remote and flexible work (and home-schooling), one cannot expect to maintain pre-COVID-19 levels of performance. The focus, rightly so, has been to keep everyone safe and healthy while maintaining as much productivity as possible. If there was ever a moment to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good, it is now.With entire families home, including the estimated 45 million U.S. children no longer in school, finding a separate, quiet space to work with few distractions has been nearly impossible. Further, many employees had limited experience, if any, with technology to support remote work and connect them with colleagues. Now’s the time to forgive the glitchy video chat, the screaming child, the barking dog or the hum of a video game in the background.
While it has been far from perfect, flexibility has allowed a large portion of the economy to keep working while we flatten the pandemic’s curve. It’s probably how we’ll do our jobs for some time going forward. We need to focus on doing it better and smarter rather than waiting and hoping to return to the way things were.
Our experience and research have found flexibility in how, when and where you work — including remote work — leads to innovation, productivity and engagement. And, as we’ve seen over the past month, operational resilience. Additional studies corroborate these findings. As we prepare to rebuild the U.S. and global economies, flexible work must be a cornerstone of these efforts in concert with COVID-19 testing, tracing and isolation.
An ongoing flexible work response to COVID-19 will combine remote work and flexible scheduling determined by the realities of an industry, job or person. That blend of flexible work would scale up or down based upon the goals of the business and the response required to manage the virus. As stay-at-home orders ease, there may be a transition period during which employees rotate working remotely two days a week and at the office three days a week as members of staggered A and B teams that allow for onsite social distancing.
Our 'Rosie the Riveter' moment
Even some of the shuttered industries can apply a flexible approach to work. Restaurants can use A and B team service and limited capacity seating in dining rooms modified to support greater social distancing combined with more robust takeout service. Gyms can stagger access to equipment and classes, combined with more online and on-demand offerings and supports. It’s not perfect. It’s not exactly how things were before the coronavirus, but it is something. It’s an operating foundation on which to rebuild economic momentum as we wait for increased COVID-19 testing and vaccine development.
Historically, flexible work has been misunderstood and undervalued. While it has been mentioned in recent economic and public health recovery discussions, few organizations have invested the time and resources required to execute flexible work as a part of their cultural and operational DNA. Sadly, those organizations were caught off guard and have struggled to respond rapidly as the way we work continues to transform.
Until COVID-19 forced millions to work from home, many organizations and leaders saw flexibility as a nice-to-have policy or perk, usually meant to appease moms or millennials. There was also too much emphasis on rigid, one-size-fits-all solutions. Before COVID-19 shined the spotlight on remote work, the four-day work week was making headlines.
Lastly, there has likely been a misguided generational bias, too. Some leaders still think of work as a place you “go.” If you aren’t “going” to a place to work, then it’s closed for business — it’s shut down. During the past month, that outdated belief has proved wrong, but if left unchallenged, it potentially puts our economy at a grave risk.
Flexibility is not just about how, when or where we work. It’s a shifting blend of all three. Rebuilding our economy will require a collective redefinition of work as “what” we do and how, when and where we can do it best based on our unique jobs and businesses during the pandemic and beyond. This will foster the creativity to reimagine how we can do our jobs, run our organizations and manage our lives even when still feeling vulnerable about our health.
COVID-19 may be our generation’s Pearl Harbor, but it’s also our Rosie the Riveter “We Can Do It!” moment. I picture Rosie flexing her bicep every time the tens of millions of people who wake up each morning, “commute” to the kitchen, living room or basement, power up their computers and start “work.” I picture her as workers still show up to workplaces reconfigured for social distancing because their jobs are essential. And I see her in the masked faces of grocery clerks, delivery drivers, first responders and health care professionals.
We’re still here. We’re still open. We’re still working.
Cali Williams Yost is a workplace futurist, strategistand author who has spent the past two decades working with organizations to transform how, whenand where work is done. Follow her on twitter: @caliyost