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Leadership Flexibility is the new norm, and it’s time for employers to embrace ‘Generation Flex’

Wayne Berger is chief executive officer, Canada and Latin America, at IWG plc.

Nine to five, Monday to Friday: It’s long been the North American way.

Our traditional approach to work has dominated our mentality since the early 1900s, when labour unions lobbied for reasonable work demands. The outcome was the 40-hour workweek – a predictable model that led to never-before-seen productivity and endured for generations.

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But there’s a new wave of professionals emerging in Canada, known as “Generation Flex,” who don’t play by the same old rules.

According to a 2019 workspace study by flexible workspace provider IWG PLC, comprised of opinions from more than 15,000 business leaders across 80 countries, 85 per cent of Canadian professionals would decline a job that didn’t offer flexibility. Flexible work is no longer considered a perk – it’s expected. More than half (54 per cent) of all those surveyed said that having a choice of work location is more important than working for a prestigious company. Therefore, it’s little surprise that 68 per cent of Canadians polled said their businesses have introduced flexible policies.

That number indicates we have reached a tipping point regarding the adoption of flexible work in Canada. Instead of resisting Generation Flex, companies can benefit by embracing a more dynamic approach to work.

Flexible work doesn’t mean a free-for-all

Flexible work can mean different things to different companies. Perhaps a company’s flexibility policy includes the option to work remotely, or maybe employees can manage their own schedules. It’s clear that options such as these are now expected by Canadian professionals, and embracing them can help attract talent and create a dynamic work culture.

But don’t mistake flexible working arrangements for a lack of accountability. Flexible workers still need to understand what’s expected of them, including the intangibles, such as culture and attitude. Just because workers are spending less time together doesn’t mean team dynamics are any less important.

Communication has never been more important

If employees share a desk, maybe they can get away with communicating at less than 100 per cent. However, for remote workers, effective communication is of the utmost importance.

When communicating digitally, there is more room for misunderstanding and lost nuance. Working flexibly can save a lot of time – especially if it means less of a commute – but it also requires a greater dedication to communication. When possible, encourage your employees to call instead of e-mailing; they’ll save time and minimize miscommunication. But if e-mail is the only option, remind workers to be exceptionally clear when it comes to asks and tasks.

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Flexible work should no longer be viewed as a perk

Flexible work is not a perk, and it shouldn’t be viewed as such. It’s no longer something that employees should have to negotiate for or fear having taken away – it’s the new norm. In order to truly benefit from Canada’s shifting work mentality, companies need to ask questions about, and listen carefully to, their employees’ changing wants, needs, and challenges.

What does flexible working mean for your company? What arrangements can benefit your team’s productivity and culture? On the flip side, what elements of flexible working don’t apply to your team? The dynamic culture that stems from flexible working is only available to those companies that embrace a creative mentality. Flexible working is not a one-size-fits-all box to tick, it’s a philosophy to embrace.

Flexibility is a two-way street

Flexible work is often seen as a benefit for employees only. But flexibility is a two-way street. Workers who are trusted to manage their own working conditions are more likely to accommodate last-minute requests.

There’s an ebb and flow to flexible working that lacks the predictability of conventional work, but it also lacks the rigidity. Flexibility offered means flexibility returned.

Flexible work is not just for millennials

A common misconception about flexible working is that it’s for millennials. Younger workers gravitate toward it, but flexible work opens just as many doors for boomers as it does for millennials. This is especially true when considering the caregiver roles that many older workers are taking on because of their aging parents.

Instead of viewing the shifting work-space mentality as a deference to a younger generation, companies should view it as an opening of our collective eyes. Just as companies are doing away with siloed offices, companies must eschew the idea that flexibility is only for certain workers. Generation Flex is less about workers’ ages and more about workers in this age.

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Executives, educators and human resources experts contribute to the ongoing Leadership Lab series.

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