By Vanessa De Groot 15 November 2017

The provision of flexible work options, especially the opportunity to work from home, is a way to attract and retain staff. But what flexibility means is constantly evolving.

In the past, the idea of flexibility has centred on working remotely, with the most progressive employers first using it as a carrot to lure workers, with other companies following suit. 

The idea of working strictly in an office was no longer the norm, with many workers instead setting up a home office, which was made easier by technological advancements including computers and wireless internet.

But now a new version of flexibility is emerging that is seeing the two ways of working combine, with workers now splitting their paid hours between the office and home. 

It’s all about meeting in the middle to find the right balance for both workers and employers, with the result that the definition of ‘flexibility’ is widening.

The workplace as the driver of innovation

This new way of thinking about flexibility has come about due to the increasing desire to drive innovation in modern businesses.

It’s believed innovation and productivity are primarily achieved through face-to-face collaboration in an office environment. It’s known as the “water-cooler effect” and is backed up by research.

With the automation of tasks and many others being outsourced overseas, the work we do is increasingly about “intellectual horse power”, says Dan Cook, Head of People and Communities at Dexus, and that’s how it will stay.

Companies need workers to come up with ideas, and they need processes to be refined and improved. That’s where innovation comes in.

However it’s achieved, the key belief of companies making changes to their flexibility work policies is that innovative thinking emerges from face-to-face collaboration rather than via Skype or email. 

“The best way to change and innovate is to bring people together,” Cook says. “It’s hard to brainstorm or push ideas around on the phone or on another piece of technology. 

“Even though we have great technology, you can’t replace human behaviour or interaction.

“Incidental work is how stuff gets done, decisions get made and people get influenced.”

IBM, considered to be the pioneer of flexible working, is just one company that has recently started encouraging their employees to come back into the office at least some of the time, as has Yahoo and Best Buy.

Collaborative workspace at Dexus's head office, Australia Square, Sydney

Office design is adapting too

Workplace design has changed over time to foster innovation through more flexible working spaces.

They’re becoming more relaxed, comfortable and homely, with more collaborative spaces suitable for casual conversations. Communal areas featuring couches, for instance, are commonplace, rather than workers sitting at individual desks.

It’s believed many ideas actually come out of casual meetings that take place in the more relaxed spaces of an office or even when workers pass each other in the hallway.

“We’re seeing companies design new workplaces thinking about the cultural impact and how to improve productivity, which adds value to a company,” says Cook.

“They’re not just thinking about how many desks they can squeeze in, or costs or overheads; they want to get the best out of their people.”

At the end of the day, workers can choose how they want to work from a range of options in the workplace to maximise their productivity.

It’s hard to brainstorm or push ideas around on the phone or on another piece of technology. Dan Cook, Dexus Head of People and Communities

Flexibility is here to stay

Both organisations and individuals need to think differently about flexibility to determine which version of it works the best, says Cook.

“The pendulum has swung from everyone being in the office to everyone being out and now it’s about finding an equilibrium between the two and determining the best way to break up how you work,” he says.

“The future is about having a much broader view of how you get your job done.”

While employees will still be able to work from home, when they’re in the office hub they are expected to be totally engaged.

The idea is that providing a better work/life balance will foster greater productivity and innovation, which is what companies need and want.

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