How to make Flex…work

Flex work is about trust, empowerment and support

How to make Flex…work

by Megan Smith, head of HR at SAP Canada

We know by now that offering a flexible work environment will become a norm in the corporate world. Organizational structures, teams, and systems have interdependence and reliance on each other – so how does this work when we consider differing individual desires and needs as it relates to something like working location?

COVID-19 helped make this simple precisely because everyone was remote – there was no choice in the matter and the playing field was leveled. While many facets of work are possible anytime, anywhere, not all work is most optimally done this way. It will ultimately fall to human resources departments and the management to become the flex masters and remain accountable to business outcomes.

So how do we make flex work, well, work?

Support and empower employees

Flex work is about trust, empowerment and supporting individual needs, so organizations need to master how to offer this support to employees while keeping organizational interconnectedness intact. It’s an exciting opportunity, and also a somewhat nebulous concept.

Flex work inherently promotes a degree of individualization – whether that is specific to a person or a type of job. However, flex work flies in the face of standardization, and standardization is something we’ve long relied on to provide fairness in the workplace. For example, coming in five days a week as a standard for everyone may not have been required – or even effective – but it was fair.

To change our traditional notion of fairness is going to require very strong communication. People expect (and deserve) to have a good reason why they are asked to do something – especially if it’s different than what someone else is doing. It’s important for leaders to think through the following questions:

  • What are my true business requirements?
  • What are the key elements needed to create a highly effective team that can meet those business requirements?
  • How can I ensure individual needs are valued, respected, and considered within that context?

A framework for flex work

To create a successful flex work model, start with a company flex vision or philosophy that connects with the culture, as this creates the foundation of a shared purpose everyone seeks to aspire to. Next, understand aspects outside of your control that impact flex decisions related to when and where people work. For example, working internationally is dictated by local country tax law and work authorization regulation. This impacts the ability to work remotely out of one’s country of employment. Another area is contractual aspects of business operations: for example, a customer service level agreement (SLA) will dictate certain aspects of work such as scheduled working time.

Then, move into the less overt aspects of flex work - herein lies the grey zone. Managers and teams need to be coached to collaborate and co-create the critical requirements related to when and where people work to achieve business success. This is critical because it helps each person see how their individual needs balance against the team’s need. ​Some key questions and areas to consider include:

  1. What is the shared purpose driving a need for people to work in person together? For example, those new/early in career team members may be more successful if there are days they can learn in person from more experienced mentors on the team. How much do people need to be together in person to achieve this need?
  2. What working hours are critical to team collaboration versus focused work that suits individual schedules? Perhaps the team is located across various geographies anyway, so in-person is less of a priority and overlapping hours of work are critical to team success.
  3. How will you manage the dynamic of disparately located teams, so no one feels “off from center”? Perhaps everyone still logs into the meeting video conference individually, even if some are together in person. Feedback from the team will be important to know what works best.
  4. What are the critical skills for team flex success in whatever arrangement is decided? Are they reliability, communication, or customer response times? Make sure you define these at the outset.
  5. Are managers and employees having regular conversations to stay aligned? No doubt, successful flex relies on respectful and direct feedback, and open communication, across the team.

This exercise may not solve all flex work challenges, and it’s certain to be uncomfortable at times, but the future of work is coming whether we like it or not – and by taking a leadership role in this area, your team can feel empowered, connected, and move together in the direction of where the future of work is headed.


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