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November 11, 2021

Employee Autonomy: What Truly Makes Work Flexible

Autonomy--the secret sauce to providing a truly flexible workplace strategy to your employees.

Providing a flexible experience to employees has never been so critical to a company’s overall health and well being--and staying on top of evolving workplace trends is a challenging and complicated beast to wrangle. 

To some, it is clear and apparent that in order to successfully tame the disruption happening around us, living and breathing flexibility via employee autonomy, is the best way to keep things fair and equitable for both the employee and greater org.

alexwheader1-1Humans connecting with humans about human things!

One of these thought leaders is Alexandra Wieland who works as a Senior Corporate Relationship Manager at flexible workplace innovator, WorkChew

Alexandra’s role and experience deeply revolves around asking the right questions as business leaders prepare for and rethink their future-of-work initiatives. From providing best practices for flexible work solutions to clients, to working at a company who truly embraces employee autonomy, Alexandra has much wisdom about what a healthy employee/employer relationship should look like. Before WorkChew and for six and a half years, Alexandra worked as a management consultant focused on employee engagement and the overall employee lifecycle. 

The following interview has been edited for conciseness.

Ryan Tidwell: Your role at WorkChew seems really interesting. Could you tell us more about it and how it relates to flexible work?

Alexandra Wieland: I'm part of WorkChew’s growth team where I'm entrusted to understand the marketplace better, to find out who our ideal client is, and then bring a solution to those who fit that mold. I'm focused on enterprise businesses and I've learned a lot about the startup world since joining in August. 

Many companies, pre-pandemic, worked fully in an office and that was their culture. Now, during our more post-pandemic times, there are slices within that same group who are saying, “We’re hybrid,” to “actually we’re totally remote,” to “no we’re coming back to the office,”--many companies are struggling with how to approach their “future” of work. 

To help navigate customers through this important conversation, I try to understand what's the driving factor for going back to the office. I ask:

  • How are you going to use that time when you're together? 
  • What impact is it going to have if you mandate things or keep things loose?

Workplace flexibility is an everyday conversation for me because I'm trying to understand the mindset of the organization and the org’s leadership--I’m trying to see if there's any wiggle room because some leaders are still not convinced flexible work solutions are ideal despite all the research indicating it’s a growing employee desire, especially amongst the Millennial and Gen Z workforce.

Some just need a solution. Some don't know where to begin and some are a little hesitant to throw yet another thing at their team to take on. And I try to illustrate that we are a low cost and low lift solution with a ton of autonomy built-in and as much customization as possible. 

RT: Your LinkedIn profile says that you help create “workplace autonomy.” How do you define autonomous work and what does the ideal relationship between the org and the employee look like?

AW: To me, autonomy is about having choice. The choice of “where do I work, when do I work, how do I work?”

Now, there are caveats to that, there still has to be conversation between the employee and their manager, and the employee and their organization. There are still decisions to make and systems to establish before we reach an agreement about where, when, and how work is done--it’s not anarchy. But as the organization, if you want to survive in this climate and in the future, then you must be democratized and adaptable--you must be flexible with employees as well as listen to them. 

The adaptive organization is always thinking ahead and always asking questions like: “What haven't we considered? Is there a chance for us to not just draw lines in the sand but actually allow for more flexibility?” I think autonomous work is really about that choice and that conversation--and those two things being ever present in the relationship between the individual and the company is really key. 

RT: You deal with discovering customer needs as an almost “flexible work consultant.” When it comes to experimenting with hybrid environments, what are some growing pains your customers are experiencing amidst all these changing work trends?

AW: I think the first growing pain for my customers is really appealing to such a large audience of employee types. 

If you’re forward-thinking, you’re thinking about your current talent, those you’re onboarding, and those who you might lose--all the various demographics of current talent, plus who you want to attract. It’s asking, “How do I accommodate all these different types of people?” 

It’s complex and new--leaders who choose a flexible approach to work, create a new type of dialogue with their people which is a new dynamic between orgs and people. Some employees will be automatically thankful but others will have lots of questions--it’s how orgs receive and act on those questions that’s an underdeveloped skill among leaders. And based on how those questions are addressed is how employees decide on whether to stay with or leave a company. 

That, and how companies actually structure and announce their future-of-work--i.e., the logistics of everything--is another huge pain point I’ve witnessed over the last year. To avoid employee fallout, the whole process has to be equitable for all

There’s a huge mismatch in the messaging that’s coming from leadership. Leaders can’t say how “critical” it is for everyone to go back into the office, while they’ve moved out of state and only come in when they want to. If a CEO asks their employees to come back to a physical office like they did before Covid--but they themselves don’t even honor that--they are not modeling an equitable workplace.

The logistics involved with coordinating a return-to-office is only part of the challenge. Leaders must consider what will incentivize and draw team members to want to come back and what hurdles they've inherited since a remote or hybrid approach was established. Flexible work must be fair which inherently requires a thoughtful approach to account for existing team nuances.

Two years ago no one was talking about this--there isn't a simple “how-to” guide to all of this which makes it hard for leaders to make an informed decision. And truthfully, I don’t envy leaders right now--I really empathize with the “chessboard” they have in front of them. There is not a one-size-fits-all approach to all of this so leaders must be  comfortable with iterating things until they get it right.

RT: What can leaders tangibly do, right now, to enhance the employee experience via an autonomous culture?

AW: By getting feedback from their existing team, hands down. And there are plenty of examples of companies who provide employee feedback loops and performance management platforms to make surveying and checking the employee pulse easy. 

The tricky part--and where I see the most disconnect--is how companies ask for feedback, who reviews it, and how they actually communicate and show how the feedback is used. How orgs processes employee feedback--and how frequently they seek it out--is what makes or breaks the loop.

The other thing leaders can do is to keep things human. Look at Spotify, Canva, Certn--there are so many examples of orgs who are doing this well. Because while there isn’t an explicit “how-to” guide for all of this, we can learn from others and model what we do based on best practices from companies who focus on the whole employee--i.e., the whole human.

alex w. interview snippet

15Five's Empower event.

RT: What's your favorite part about working for WorkChew, as well as your favorite value add WorkChew has for its customers?

AW: It’s really hard to say there's a favorite because there are multiple, but I'd say for me and my personality, I love the opportunity to be autonomous myself. 

On any given day, I wake up and I decide what my day is going to look like. I design my week, I choose when I'm going to hold meetings, and I choose where and how I'll spend my time. And thankfully, this is true of a lot of jobs and a lot of companies, but I feel this sense of pride even more so with WorkChew because we are fundamentally trying to live and provide a new way of working. 

If I wanted to leave the house to work at one of our partner locations, I could--but no one's tying my hands saying I have to. If I want to stay at home all the time, great, I’m empowered by my employer to do that too. 

When I think about our value props, I think it’s how we live and breathe helping our customers reduce burnout, sustain high levels of productivity, and encourage good, healthy work/life boundaries. We can help with everything from employee engagement problems in the hybrid environment, to onboarding virtual employees. Being able to assist with things like talent attraction and retention is really fulfilling and I love seeing companies be more thoughtful about the employee experience.

I literally get to improve the flexible work experience by connecting professionals to beautiful spaces where they can work, eat, and thrive--all while I’m experiencing a similar, flexible and autonomous work environment.

***

To learn more about WorkChew, connect with Alexandra on LinkedIn.

Looking to design a more autonomous, employee-centered workplace? 

Follow the link below and discover the five ways you can design, plan, and execute an employee-centered workplace. 

5 ways to an employee-centric workplace

 

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