Learning to Avoid the Chaos: 5 Things That Can Go Wrong in the Flexible Workspace

As the working world moves from the office to home, many businesses are finding they have little choice but to become more flexible in their approach. Organizations that are coming out ahead during the health crisis are those that are introducing flexibility; flexibility in terms of workspaces, working hours, and expectations. But let’s be honest. It hasn’t always been smooth sailing.

There are definitely a lot of things that can go wrong in the flexible workspace, and some businesses have found this out the hard way. But you don’t have to. Instead, you can learn to avoid chaos.

How? By borrowing lessons from those that have been there and done it.

While a flexible workspace may be unexplored territory for you, some organizations have been working this way for as long as any of us can remember. Healthcare, retail, hospitality, manufacturing are just a few examples of industries where flexibility is built into the shift working processes. And we can learn a lot from them.

Let’s take a look at 5 things that can go wrong in the flexible workspace environment, and how you can take effective measures now to avoid butting up against obstacles and challenges in the future:

1. Employees Fail to See the Bigger Picture

A flexible workspace is just that: flexible. When you move towards a more flexible model, you’re going to have some people in the office, and some people at home. You’re going to have some people working in one area of a workspace, and some in another. The latest stats suggest that around 4.7 million employees in the US work away from the main office for at least half of the working week. And one of the biggest challenges that come with flexibility like this is feeling disconnected from the ultimate goal.

What’s interesting is that according to the Deputy State of Shift Work report for 2021, 90% of shift workers say that they believe their work is directly contributing towards the success of the company. That’s an incredible figure. What we’ve got here are businesses that are built on flexibility, yet they’re clearly doing a great job of keeping employees connected to the bigger picture. How do they do it?

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They do it by fostering individual purpose. According to McKinsey, ‘purpose can be an important contributor to employee experience, which in turn is linked to higher levels of employee engagement, stronger organizational commitment, and increased feelings of well-being’. When making workspaces more flexible, it’s important that employees don’t feel that their purpose is flexible, too. The purpose must be static; it must be constant. Employees must always be able to understand their contributions.

Top Tip: As you adopt flexible workspace models, always try to link the changes you’re making to the purpose of the employee. Explain how employees do — and will continue to — play a critical role in the organization despite the growing flexibility in how they operate and embed purpose into communication.

2. Employees Become Overworked

While flexible workspaces and flexible working models are often viewed as an effective way to prevent burnout, there is a risk that they could achieve the complete opposite. Unusual working hours, different working conditions, and constantly changing workspaces (that may act as offices one day and presentation spaces the next) all introduce change into day-to-day working lives. And with any sort of change comes a transition period; a period where it’s not uncommon for productivity levels to suffer.

It’s very easy for employees to work themselves to the ground trying to make up for any productivity losses during this period. And what’s really worrying is that managers may not always be around to spot the signs of employee burnout, meaning that staff wellbeing could be declining without being noticed. So how do shift workers deal with the pressures and uncertainty of daily flexibility? With scheduling.

While the schedule of a shift worker may be unpredictable at times, they usually have some form of routine. There’s a pattern in working hours, they know what’s expected of them when they’re on-site in terms of performance and tasks, and they understand how to make changes to their schedule as needed. Their working hours are closely tracked and monitored, and shifts are set to allow for adequate (and legally required) time off to rest and recuperate. This is a lesson that all organizations can borrow.

Top Tip: Use scheduling software. This can not only help you keep track of when employees are on-site, but can also help you create hot desk schedules. And, perhaps most important of all, it can help you monitor working hours and breaks to prevent employee burnout.

3. Managers Struggle to Coach, Support, and Develop

With a flexible workspace comes a big change in how managers and their teams interact. If they’re working in different parts of the workspace, managers may not be seeing their teams face-to-face as much as they once were; depending on scheduling and hot-desking setups, they might not be seeing them at all. And so it naturally becomes challenging to support, coach, guide, and develop these workers using the same practices as were used when everyone was working together, at the same time, from a dedicated office space.

Turning back to the State of Shift Work report we looked at earlier, 90% of shift workers report feeling well supported by their managers; 64% of them feel consistently supported. It appears that shift work managers have this down to a T. So what are they doing differently to non-shift organizations?

They’re communicating. When employees and managers are working from different locations, they can’t rely on passive communications that occur naturally in a dedicated office. Flexible workspaces require active communication; for managers to actively interact with, monitor, and track employees using alternative methods. If managers aren’t sitting next to their teams throughout the day, they need to find some way to fill the communication gap to keep up-to-date with everything that’s going on.

Top Tip: Introduce digital communication tools if you haven’t already done so. This can help to maintain relationships and open up communications channels even if managers and employees aren’t seeing each other quite as often. It can help managers support their staff, and identify emerging needs for training.

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4. Culture Takes a Back Seat

With a flexible workspace, it’s normal to always have some people working from the office space, and others working from home. It’s also normal to have some people assigned to one hot desk schedule, and some to another. So no matter what you do, it can sometimes feel that some employees are being excluded, which can make it difficult — if not impossible — to build a strong company culture in the flexible workspace. Shift work managers don’t let these barriers stop them from building a great company culture.

Businesses entering into flexible workspace arrangements need to build a strong company culture with a team that hardly meets face-to-face, or with a team that works from different parts of the workspace, or at different times. This is usually achieved amongst shift workers with transparency and consistency. No matter what shift a worker is assigned to, they have access to the same information as everyone else.

To create a culture of inclusivity, businesses should try to be more transparent in their approaches: send company-wide news updates that deliver the same message to every worker; use comprehensive collaboration and communications tools for organization-wide chats and conversations; introduce a company-wide rewards-and-recognition system that allows for everyone, regardless of their schedule or place of work, to have the opportunity to be praised for the hard work and effort that they’re putting in.

Top Tip: Make it easy for workers to get to know each other, even if their paths don’t naturally cross in the flexible workspace set up. For example, you could use photos or videos to introduce new hires to everyone, or assign cross-departmental/ cross schedule partners or mentors to boost collaboration.

5. Problems Get Pushed Under the Rug

When entering into a flexible workspace arrangement, it’s natural to focus on getting the workspace up and running and helping workers to adapt to change. And while this is certainly good in terms of building and solidifying new flexible processes, it’s not always great in terms of change management. Moving from a dedicated office to a more flexible arrangement can be a big change, and unfortunately, one of the biggest problems with this is that there’s often no one appointed to oversee this change.

This can mean that some of the issues we’ve discussed above aren’t picked up on. And if they are, they’re not addressed — at least not quickly. Any sort of change must be overseen in the right way, with someone there to track and monitor progress and performance to make sure it’s all working properly.

It can be a good idea to appoint a ‘Head of Change’, or ‘Head of Flexible Working/Workspaces’. This person’s role would be to closely monitor the flexible workspace and flexible working arrangements that have been introduced to ensure that they are achieving what they set out to. With someone taking responsibility for its success, potential issues or sticking points are likely to be identified before they become problematic, giving you a chance to resolve issues and proactively adapt as necessary.

Top Tip: While you can choose to hire specifically for this role, you don’t have to. You may be able to split this responsibility between multiple members of the organization who can carry out change management duties alongside their day-to-day work. Just be careful not to overburden your staff.

The Shift to Flexibility

According to research by Deloitte, many companies have already moved to flexible workspace models. But for those that haven’t, flexible workspaces may not be something that you can ignore. Studies have found that, since the COVID-19 health crisis, employees are no longer happy — or prepared — to work in a dedicated office environment full time. They want more flexibility. One study suggests that just 12% want 100% office work, and only 15% want 100% remote work. The majority want flexibility.

Whether that’s a hybrid office/remote approach, or the use of co-working spaces, hot desks, or workspace sharing, flexibility is the future of work. Understanding what could go wrong when moving to a flexible workspace model — and how to find solutions to these challenges — is key to flexible success.

The tips mentioned here will help you achieve exactly that. All the best!

About Author: Derek spearheads key initiatives at Deputy, a global workforce management platform for employee scheduling, timesheets and communication. With a focus on workforce, Derek helps business owners and workforce leaders simplify employment law compliance, keep labor cost in line and build award-winning workplaces. Derek has over 16 years’ experience in delivering data-driven sales and marketing strategies to SaaS companies like MarketSource and Griswold Home Care.

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Also Read:

1. The Untapped Powers of a Motivated Team (and how to unleash them)

2. How to Keep Up Stellar Project Management Work When in Stress

3. Cringeworthy Things Great Leaders Do NOT Do!

Learning to Avoid the Chaos: 5 Things That Can Go Wrong in the Flexible Workspace was originally published in ProofHub Blog on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Learning to Avoid the Chaos: 5 Things That Can Go Wrong in the Flexible Workspace


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