"Flexibility" Is The New Buzzword Companies Will Use To Try and Stop You Working From Home

The new buzzword for the future of work is as confusing as it is ripe for abuse.

An interesting stat came in yesterday from mIRC-for-work product Slack:

As I’ve said repeatedly, executives want to have people back in the office more because they like to feel powerful and want to feel like they’re able to do their domain expansion technique over workers at any given time; I assume. I would also love it if someone would specifically ask executives about this - I want to know! I want to know who these executives are and ask them difficult questions!

This may be the answer, and I think that Chris nails the theoretical lens through which many executives view their companies. The larger a company is, the more likely it is that an executive will be totally removed from the process (though many smaller companies have this problem too), thus leaving them to make calls about working from home based on rotten intuition and what they’d like to believe is true.

This is why I”m worried about the logic of “flexibility,” a vacuous term that is somehow different from hybrid work entirely based on its own vagueness. A Future Forum Pulse study found that 76% of employees do not want to return to full-time office work, 76% want the flexibility of where they work, and 93% want flexibility in when they work - which is a vast departure from what the remote debate has, up until this point, been about. Maybe I’m being unreasonably paranoid after reading and writing tens of thousands of words about remote work. Still, the vagueness of “flexibility” feels like something that’s being added to the conversation as a means of diluting the demands of the worker.

Putting on my tinfoil hat, if I was to make this an argument to deliberately undermine workers, I’d start lumping workers into the “flexibility” camp and then claim that workers want “flexibility while being paid like they’re full time and living anywhere.” The Big Scary Thing they’ll fear is that if everybody wants “a flexible workplace,” nobody will be able to communicate because everybody will work at different times.

A Bad Term

The very word flexibility doesn’t mean anything in this case. CNBC claims that “workers want flexibility, not hybrid offices,” with one paragraph that particularly stood out:

Instead, what workplace experts and some CHROs are now saying is that what workers really need is flexibility — the ability to figure out for themselves which days are in the office and on which days remote is best. The distinction may sound like mere verbiage, the experts acknowledge, but the difference could mean keeping valuable workers or watching them walk out the door.

Before I continue - can we stop asking “workplace experts” about shit? I guess that I can’t say that because someone might call me one of those, but still, I don’t want to hear from someone who runs a consultancy for remote work or a “Chief People Officer.”

Anyway, the more significant problem with this is that flexibility is being framed as a worker problem - a demand, rather than a thing that makes the worker happier and doesn’t interfere with the process of getting business done. It is an intentional narrowing of the idea of what flexibility means down to the idea that you can theoretically go and get your kid from soccer practice on Thursdays. Still, you’ll be in the office, for some reason, on others.

The flexibility discourse is an act of appeasement for managers and executives. It is an attempt to create another stop along the road to remote work, an act of bargaining that offers little more than hybrid work other than “you can sometimes not be in the office.”

In fact, the core difference seems to be that instead of hybrid work, which means you have to be in the office, you have the flexibility to choose when you have to be in the office, which means that you have to be in the office.

It’s also a conscious attempt to inject surveillance and micro-management into the world of remote work:

Giving workers autonomy over their schedules doesn’t release companies from all decision-making, of course. Software and digital platforms that give organizations visibility into the entire workforce — who’s in the office, occupancy trends, who’s vaccinated — are vitally important as well, says Jonathan Fishman, founder of BizyDev, a business development firm.

“Without that kind of system and strong communication standards I think companies are going to be handicapped when it comes to adapting to a more flexible model,” he says.

One company he’s working with that’s providing this technology is Kettle, a platform and mobile app that enables companies to manage flexible work arrangements. The app lets employers understand who’s in the office on which days, how to accommodate meetings of different sizes, and allows them to communicate to workers any changes in Covid-19 protocols. “All the logistical framework is organized and seamless,” Fishman says. “That’s so important because things keep shifting and companies have to keep up.”

It’s as if someone sat down and designed a system that would give managers something to do - the chance to survey and control their workers under the auspices of “accomodating meetings of different sizes” and “communicate changes to covid-19 protocols,” another thing that would be easily avoided by not forcing people into the office. And still, after all this time, I have yet to see compelling quotes telling me why the office part of work actually matters - what is it that we’re losing? Give me concrete examples! Tell me what’s going on!

Wait, hold on-

Her focus moving forward is to help train Carbon’s managers in this new work paradigm. “We’re all coming to recognize after this pandemic that face time does not equate to performance,” she said. That doesn’t mean that companies should lower their standards in any way, Kullman is quick to add. “We’re giving people flexibility to work in a way that suits their life, but we’re also holding the bar high on performance. That’s good for companies and employees.”

Oh my god, she admit it! I definitely am brimming with confidence that a company that previously thought that face time equaled performance can develop a fair matrix through which to evaluate what “high performance” is. Excellent stuff, no further questions, ma’am!

Anyway, the whole flexibility thing is a thing that got made up, so they could stop saying hybrid work because hybrid work doesn’t work. If your ‘hybrid work’ strategy wasn’t flexibility, what was it? Arbitrary days in the office? What does that prove? What does that do?

Well, it turns out [emphasis mine]…

Credit Karma isn’t asking workers to return to its offices in Oakland, California, and Charlotte, North Carolina, until January, but when they do, the in-office schedule will be flexible and determined by the employee and manager, not set company-wide.

Ohhh, that’s how they’re going to use flexibility to screw the worker - by giving the manager the keys to the car. Instead of having an organizational responsibility, they’re shifting it to individual managers who can then entirely run the lives of those under them. Instead of giving workers more freedom, they are positioning them to be abused in a whole new way - by giving managers more power! Managers, who I have already established are poorly trained and rarely evaluated in their ability to manage, are now potentially going to be given the ability to control when you do or don’t come into the office, based on whatever arbitrary lens they view work through.

While this is just one example, one can imagine this will be how “flexibility” is framed - that you can work from home whenever you want, as long as it’s okay with your manager, as opposed to okay with your boss. It’s the new version of unlimited paid time off - a seemingly positive thing that leaves your destiny in the hands of someone whose entire position is predicated on you doing stuff to make them look good. It’s a chance for organizations to shift responsibility - they can say they offer a “flexible work environment” while managers crack the whip about how “culture means you have to be here a few days.”

This is the problem with any kind of arbitrary policy within a business - it can be (perhaps intentionally) used to create the illusion of freedom within a tightly controlled environment. Whereas hybrid work says that you must come in X and Y days (which sucks), flexibility allows you “unlimited work from home privileges,” which is any number multiplied by any number, and that number can also be zero. You can, to quote designer Ryan Mattson, flexibly work the same hours as your manager - which, as I’ve discussed, likely means more hours in the office than not.

The entire point of HR is to remove decision-making around personnel from supervisors, in many cases to avoid the chance for abuse based on personal grievances or whims. Of course, the natural response here is that HR can start being the arbiter of remote work.

…which brings us back to exactly where we were before the pandemic because the HR works for the company, which means that they will do what the company feels is necessary, except in a “flexible” arrangement, they’ve got aircover.

You may ask at this point what the solution is, and it’s straightforward: go remote. If you have a big office, convert it into something that exists as a meeting point, and have a policy that states that the office should be used for specific reasons, and (in as much detail as possible) lay out what those particular reasons are. The office should be reframed not as a place “where the work happens,” but as a tool for making things happen - and there should be a policy that exists to stop people dragging subordinates into the office for no good reason.

In my case, my people are generally “available” during their business hours (literally do not care where that is as long as they do their work, we have a guy who works from an archery range, not even kidding), and expected to be off at 5PM. If they work beyond that, dinner is on me, and if they do it regularly, I check in to make sure this is them just doing stuff when it’s convenient versus having too much on their plate - and calls stop at 5PM, too. It’s not perfect, but it generally works because the rule is “be on calls when we need you, and do the stuff we need you to do before the deadline.” I recognize we’re a small team and that things are different at a big organization.

The problem with flexibility is that it’s either organizational chaos - anyone can be in and working at any given time from anywhere - or a chance for institutionalized abuse to run rampant. There needs to be some clear-set guidelines - and they need to come from the company, and be consistent. And if you can do a “flexible” work environment, or even a hybrid environment, doesn’t that prove that being in the office is kind of stupid, to begin with? Unless you’re working on a specific machine that must be kept in the office - which happens - there is little to justify the office beyond “we like seeing you.”

It’s an exercise in denial, all in the service of not admitting that remote work is a better solution. By offering increasingly more confusing suggestions of “flexibility” and “hybrid offices,” they explicitly frame remote work as an inferior option that they’re generously offering to their people as - you guessed it! - a means of compensation that doesn’t involve money. This is why you’re seeing pay cuts to people based on their location - companies are treating remote work as part of your compensation package, a perk rather than a more productive and less wasteful way to get work done.

Workplace “flexibility” is an act of cowardice by a company that lacks the courage to make a big decision. Companies should create policies that make sense, based on the specific workers and hold to them. If someone doesn’t require something from the office, they should be allowed to work from home as much as they like, even if their manager pitches a little shitfit about it and cries to the boss. If their work is done, and that work can be done anywhere, then that is where the work gets done - it’s time to give up on this nice-nice bullshit in which we humor people with their vacuous “culture” and “socializing” arguments.

Vague policies are made for two reasons - out of laziness or to benefit the company. It almost always leads to some form of abuse, mainly because only one person or thing can choose to interpret the policy - and that’s the company.

Suppose a CEO has made a multi-year lease decision driving them to force people back to the office. In that case, that CEO should publicly declare that is the reason and use that Big Meaningful Title to renegotiate (or exit) said lease. I have yet to see a significant CEO make a good faith argument about going back to the office, just increasingly more petulant and shrill declarations about how human beings do better when they’re together.

CEOs rarely if ever make decisions that benefit workers based on the kind of spurious, emotional arguments that they’re using to demand they return to the office - likely because they know it won’t affect them. That’s why they’re beating the drum about flexibility - they know that if they disseminate the means through which people can work remotely they’re allowed to look progressive without ever having to be progressive, and can institute an internal culture that works against the remote worker with tens or hundreds or thousands of potentially fall guys.

Do not fall for these bullshit arguments about flexibility from people that will never deal with their consequences.