- The freedom to choose where you work on a given day is associated with higher engagement and increased psychological safety.
- But there’s a catch: the benefits only manifest in certain team environments.
- Atlassian’s Team Playbook offers loads of techniques that set teams up for success with flexible work.
Another day, another shift in workplace dynamics. As more employers mandate time in the office in an attempt to address flagging productivity and weakened company cultures, we started to wonder if the option to work remotely is really to blame. Spoiler alert: it’s not.
At least, that’s what our latest round of research says. As part of our ongoing State of Teams initiative, we surveyed over 2,200 knowledge workers in the US, Australia, Germany, and India to dig deeper into the ways flexible work – specifically, the option to choose where you work on any given day – affects outcomes for individuals and teams.
If you’ve been following State of Teams from the start, you’ll recall that our first wave of data showed teams can be equally successful whether colocated in an office or distributed – it’s more about how you work than where you work. Then our 2022 report identified specific benefits of flexibility: higher wellbeing, increased innovation, and more favorable perceptions of company culture. The data also revealed downsides, like difficulty keeping teams aligned and a greater risk of impostor syndrome.
This latest data corroborate our previous findings and provide more texture regarding which teams stand to benefit from flexibility. Turns out, flexibility can make healthy organizations even stronger – but it can’t make weak organizations strong. And when certain negative factors are present, introducing flexibility might make things worse.
Who benefits from flexibility (and who doesn’t)
When employers don’t force their workers to show up to the office, workers tend to exercise the full range of options available to them. 53% of respondents say they can work from whatever location they prefer. Within that group, 97% opt to work from home (or similar) at least some of the time, and 15% work remotely all of the time.
Our analysis showed the freedom to choose where you work leads to several advantages in addition to those mentioned above, such as higher employee engagement, increased psychological safety, and the perception of managers as inclusive. In addition, people with flexible options were more likely to describe their teams as “thriving.”
To be clear, the benefits aren’t derived from working outside the office. It’s the fact of having a choice that matters. But choice alone isn’t enough to keep employees engaged and performing at their best. We found that strong team coordination, inclusive leadership, support for innovation, and baseline levels of psychological safety must also be present in order for organizations to realize the benefits of flexibility.
What does that look like in practice? Let’s break it down.
- Team coordination – Roles and responsibilities are clear. Team members communicate about who is doing what, as well as problems and ideas. Teams have a shared understanding of their goals and track progress toward them.
- Inclusive leadership – Leaders proactively share information affecting their team. Everyone’s ideas for improving the organization are given consideration. A belief that input from different roles and ranks makes for better problem-solving. Leaders acknowledge the existence of biases and do their best to counteract them.
- Support for innovation – Calculated risks are accepted, regardless of the outcome. Teams have enough time and space to generate new ideas. There’s a culture of recognizing good ideas, no matter who they come from.
- Psychological safety – People are allowed to be themselves at work. If someone makes a mistake, it isn’t held against them. Differences are respected. People feel their perspectives are considered in decision-making.
Given that inclusivity and psychological safety are both a benefit and a prerequisite, this might seem like a chicken-or-the-egg situation. It’s not. Flexibility makes it more likely leaders will be seen as inclusive, but only if they’re already demonstrating inclusivity to some degree. Similarly, flexibility is associated with higher levels of psychological safety, but having flexibility won’t make psychological safety magically materialize out of nowhere. Think of flexibility as an amplifier, not a catalyst.
For organizations that don’t have the right conditions in place, flexibility doesn’t make things any better or any worse – with one notable exception. In cases where the culture is viewed unfavorably, flexibility appears to reduce employee wellbeing slightly. More research is needed to uncover the reasons behind this. For the moment, however, it’s not hard to imagine poor communication or workplace politics becoming more acute, and therefore more stressful, in a distributed context.
What this means for leaders
If your organization already offers location flexibility and you’re struggling to maintain high team performance and a great culture, resist the temptation to call folks back to the office. Most workers want the freedom to choose. When it’s available, most respondents opt to work flexibly. (A 2022 study from McKinsey reported findings similar to ours.) Taking away something workers desire is definitely not the way to improve engagement or perceptions of company culture.
Instead, start by changing up your organization’s collaboration practices so you’re set up to reap the benefits of your flexible work policy. Atlassian’s Team Playbook offers a few suggestions.
- Working Agreements – Discuss and document how you’ll communicate (email, chat, etc), ground rules around feedback and learning from mistakes, and how you’ll celebrate successes.
- Stand-ups – In 10 minutes or less, share your progress since yesterday, your plan for today, and anything blocking your progress.
- Roles and Responsibilities – Clarify and document each team member’s job role and what they’re responsible for. This helps avoid stepping on each other’s toes, as well as gaps in coverage.
- DACI Framework – Make decisions more transparent by clarifying who is contributing input, who will ultimately make the call, and who will be informed of the outcome.
- Inclusive Meetings – Tips for ensuring everyone has a chance to contribute.
Support for innovation
- Blameless Retrospectives – Like regular retrospectives, but with an agreement that mistakes and failures will be treated as system failures for the whole team to address – no scapegoating or finger-pointing allowed.
- 5 Whys – Get to the heart of an issue by digging into the reasons it exists. This practice is great for revealing the root cause of failures, as well as uncovering insights into customer problems that point to novel solutions.
- Disruptive Brainstorming – Build muscle around fearlessly sharing ideas and respectfully narrowing them down in a structured format.
- My User Manual – Foster a sense of belonging by helping teammates get to know each other on a deeper level: how you like to work, what you need to succeed, and what brings you joy outside of work.
Conversely, if your organization is poised to benefit from more flexibility, try letting employees choose where they work, as Atlassian has. (Within reason – timezones and reliable internet are obviously factors here.) It hasn’t been perfect, but we’re determined to figure out how to smooth out the rough edges because we’ve experienced the benefits of flexible work and believe this is ultimately the future of knowledge work.
One thing we’ve found helpful is to have each team run a Work-Life Impact workshop, designed to help teams adjust to remote or hybrid work. Each person shares a little bit about their home working environment, their support network, and the requirements of their role. From there, the group discusses how they can tweak workflows, rituals, and expectations to better support each other. Even if you’ve been working flexibly for ages, this technique always uncovers ways to improve.
Yes, there are logistical challenges to flexibility. And yes, you should still bring everyone together in person occasionally to create and cement those all-important personal connections between teammates. But for healthy organizations, our research suggests the upsides to flexibility outweigh the downsides.
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