Can Profitability and Flexibility Coexist?

Addison Meriwether • 7/20/2020
Amidst COVID-19, flexibility has helped employees to stay sane in a time of anxiety and question. Working from home is a new experience for many but an old habit for others.

Profitability flexibility

To be clear, remote working and working from home are not necessarily the same. Remote working is completing one’s job, tasks or objective from a place other than a primary office. People have successfully worked from airports, planes, hotels, coffee shops and yes, homes, for many decades.

I would argue people did not necessarily elect to work remotely for convenience or flexibility, but out of need to perform. It’s safe to say that whether you are a non-profit or for-profit company, the goal is to not lose money and, if possible, to make money. No organization can sustain if profit does not exist. Some profits are greater than others but spending more money than acquiring is a short-lived proposition. So, my question is this: post COVID, can profitability and flexibility coexist? Will they complement each other, or will they conflict?

Maybe a different perspective is asking how performance and flexibility will coalesce. Working from home has been a unique four-month long experiment of the workplace experience, one I hope we never repeat. Cushman & Wakefield leveraged this time to study more than 50,000 employees from a variety of different companies and industries and collected 2.5 million data points through its proprietary Experience Per Square Foot tool. The headliner is 73% of employees want flexibility and believe their company should embrace some level of working from home, with 75% expressing they can effectively focus and collaborate working from home. 

Another reliable industry study showed 26% want to work from home one or two days, 18% want three or four days and only 12% want to work from home five days a week. So, what is the right balance for an individual between working remotely and working from the office? The answer lies in performance. Managers and executives know performers drive profitability.

Cushman & Wakefield found that 50% of the respondents have struggled to connect with company culture. Driving and defining culture over Zoom has its limitations. Technology has certainly created a whole new world for connectivity, however, in person connectivity is irreplaceable. Brainstorming sessions and spontaneous collaboration are unable to occur when employees are apart. Those who need colleague connectivity have struggled at home, such as sales, HR, R&D/Analytics, and marketing, while jobs requiring more focus work scored well in the study, such as operations, legal, finance, and procurement.

Can profitability and flexibility co-exist? The survey showed 90% of employees feel they are trusted to work remotely now. If workers perform better outside the core central office there will be flexibility, but flexibility is a two-way street. Managers and leadership value flexible employees. As stated in an article by the balancecareers, “Flexible employees modify their approach to tasks based on the preferences of stakeholders and the unique demands of each situation.” In times of low unemployment, flexibility has been used as a tool to retain and attract talent. Even as the economy shifts, management will continue to accommodate employee needs and styles. However, performance will ultimately drive one’s success, not the level of personal flexibility.

The obligation will be on management to create an environment where employees will perform at their best, regardless of location. It is important to get this right as the largest segment of the workforce have grappled with inadequate workspace at home. According to Cushman & Wakefield’s survey, 70% of Millennial and Gen Z studied were distracted by caregiver responsibilities, peer roommates and living conditions that lacked private areas for work. That segment also wrestled with the ability to sever from the workday and resulted in low levels of energy and well-being. Bottom line, they are burning out.

The earlier referenced industry study observed 55% found collaborating with others is harder at home and 51% say staying up to date on what others are working on is harder from home. Successful organizations will be the ones that consider an environment where employees can perform at the highest level. It very well may be a variety of locations and experiences to support convenience, functionality and well-being, or as Cushman & Wakefield defines it, the Total Workplace Ecosystem. Are we better off part of a workplace ecosystem or apart in our homes?

Finally, management has walked delicately with tones of compassion and motivation. We have experienced a sense of forgiveness related to performance during these times – nobody is penalized for not hitting their numbers right now, when health and safety are paramount. As profitability becomes a higher priority again, those who perform and produce positive outcomes will be rewarded. That reward may be in the form of flexibility. Flexibility is best earned through trust and performance rather than used as an incentive or benefit. So, can profitability and flexibility coexist?