Work flexibility is evolving in a way that gives us more autonomy and control over our life?

Written by: Emma El Karout  created on: 11-02-2020

In my last role as HR Director, perched in my glass office at the top of one of Dubai Marina’s landmark towers overlooking the gulf, floating villas, yachts and water taxis, everyone thought I had it good.

When I decided to leave, they thought I had lost my mind

The popular belief was that I must have been headhunted to a different role with higher pay but no, I left because, after years of searching for work life balance I finally figured out it didn’t exist.

There is no such thing as “work/life”, there is only Life!

Work should be seamlessly integrated into your life, a plug-in component thereof, so well connected that it doesn’t feel like being separate.

In my world today there’s only life.

Before getting to this point, I spent many hours trying to get here. I wanted to feel in charge again of my life and work whenever and wherever I felt like. I wanted the flexibility to plan my own schedule and prioritize what needs to be done and when. I wanted to own my time.

It was so bad that during a road trip family vacation when I lost mobile network signal and my phone battery died, I almost had a nervous breakdown. My behaviour afterwards stressed my designated-driver husband out immensely, and the road trip became a total nightmare for everyone until we reached our hotel and plugged in. When I think back on this, I wonder, which email or message was I so nervous about missing? I can’t even remember…

At my previous company, people were judged for taking all their accumulated leave or for not working extra hours in the office. There was even a policy for carrying over of leave days. Other companies encouraged this by emphasizing that piling up leave days would result in an end-of-employment cash bonanza.

This caused me personal conflict as HR Director. These policies were in opposition to my personal beliefs and approach to wellness and to flexible work. Mine was the sole voice in the boardroom on such matters; the others viewed me as the liberal tree-hugger whose “wasteful” ideas were going to ruin the company.

On the contrary, my efforts were not just to drive flexibility but to adopt work practices that treated people like the adults they were. It was no different to how we treat people outside work settings, as simple as that.

When you empower people to make their own decisions regarding when, where and how to work, they will infuse work into their lives. They will not resent answering client calls or work emails that need urgent attention, regardless of the timing since they are willingly doing so. This blurring of work and life is done in a way that does not disturb the balance – the individual understands when is appropriate to take that call or answer that email and is not driven to do so out of fear.

The mindset of ‘get the work’ done regardless of when or where you do it is liberating. If a client calls in the evenings to finish off a discussion, you will gladly take it – as this means you can run your errands in the morning instead or go to that yoga class. When companies talk about a seamless employee experience, what could be more seamless than that? This makes life and career feel like a one and us more like humans. You don’t need to make an effort to segregate because there is no need – it all flows in harmony exactly the way it makes more sense to you. You manage your own time and energy.

Having spent a long time in big corporates and cut-throat industries, work became an obsession and the long hours became a trend. People brag about coming to a late dinner with friends straight from the office. This caused high levels of stress, burnout and other health issues which in turn resulted in lower performance; but very few made that correlation.

I have seen junior employees sticking around after hours because the boss is still there, and they are not comfortable to leave before he/she leaves. I have seen the boss bragging in a Townhall about the late leavers and how hard they are working – while others felt guilty and excluded from that praise. The (false) connection between hard work and long hours at the desk was iron-clad.

Flexibility is a movement and it’s just picking up momentum and people are pushing back. More of them expect and demand flexibility — paid leave, unlimited vacation time, remote work, etc.

Some say that the young are lazy and entitled and that’s why they are pushing for this flexibility. I would say what about the professional experts who prefer to work as intrapreneurs in their own organizations whereby they are responsible for a business unit and take full ownership of its PnL and results.

Being flexible does not mean working less; on the contrary, flexible workers end up being more productive since they work according to a rhythm when they get stuck in when best to them.

As opposed to the thinking that we work between 8am and 6pm.

Partners in advisory firms are an example of a successful work model where they manage their own time and clients. They draw a percentage of their business earnings as part of salary. However, they work wherever and whenever they want. Slack off? No pay, and eventually, they’re out.

Why can this principle not be applied elsewhere? With the understanding that not all roles are as directly linked to revenue as this, of course. Work flexibility is not a luxury and should not be tagged as ‘for the lazy’ – it takes courage to demand flexibility as this means you will be responsible for your own time, delivery, business earnings, etc. Work flexibility is not the company giving up, it means the company will get more.

Flexibility is being redefined to mean ownership and intrapreneurship

It’s not anymore defined as the ability to work from home when a child is sick or the car is gone in for repairs.

It’s about 24-hour connectivity, but not always on. It’s about managing your own time, priorities, and energy levels. If it means you are the most productive after midnight, then light up that candle! Also, if it means you need that meditation time in the middle of the day, then yes! It’s your call.

Flexibility is not restricted to mothers and children related activities. Flexibility is managing your own time to do whatever you want so long as you deliver on your work promises.

My husband had a job in a different country to our home for about a year. This was when our daughter was 2 years old and even though his weekly flight was only 1 hour, the full travel process was around 4 hours and very taxing. Our daughter used to cry every time she saw his luggage being packed. Then one day he arrived home after his week away and after a long hug at the door, she stepped back and slapped him across the face. She didn’t have the language back then to say so, but this action of hers essentially was saying, go back to where you came from! That was it for him, and he decided to end his very senior role at one of the biggest natural gas companies in the world.

Resistance to flexibility stems from a desire for control by weak leaders with fixed work mindsets. Control over where and when employees work is a sign of lack of confidence and trust in the team as well as lack of ability to orchestrate a team that delivers, come what may.

Work hard but be smart - you need a life. Flexibility is being redefined by the need to feel autonomous and in control of your life.

And finally, it’s not about working less - it’s about managing my job as if am managing my own business