During the pandemic, there was no shortage of predictions that the world of work had changed forever. Not least with the mass adoption of remote working that took place in real time as lockdown restrictions kicked in.
Many businesses, however, seem to have forgotten this, forcing staff to return to closely supervised desks and offices.
But they are overlooking not just a change in how staff can work, but also in attitudes towards work and what it means to people at their peril. The genie of remote work is out of the bottle and won’t go back in.
Change takes time to understand
It will be some time before we can fully understand the change we are seeing. Even the Great Resignation is subject to debate, with some suggesting that many of those ‘resignations’ were natural turnover, rather than an expression of frustration.
There are many people who are returning to their workplaces with enthusiasm. But we will not know for a while whether that is a lasting enthusiasm for their workplace, or a passing need for the social contact they have missed.
However, what we can know is that there were already trends in place, all accelerated by the pandemic, that reflect a growing rejection of traditional views of what work means.
Western societies have embraced the Monday-to-Friday, nine-to-five, approach for the best part of a hundred years. But just because it’s become the rhythm of everyone’s working life, it does not mean it’s an ideal situation.
Increasingly, we can see examples of the 40-hour week orthodoxy being questioned and rejected. This is often as part of a growing focus on work/life balance.
In Europe, for example, limits on the maximum length of the working week are being supplemented with laws preventing bosses from contacting employees out of hours.
Many workers are voluntarily reducing hours, despite the reduction in salary, to give themselves more free time to spend with family or on leisure pursuits. It’s probably no coincidence that the countries with the lowest average working weeks tend to top the tables for wellbeing and happiness, too.
Some employers are even embracing it. In recent years, many businesses have adopted four-day week experiments, without reductions in pay, and found that productivity increases more than covered the loss in working hours, while overall costs were generally reduced.
Flexible working isn’t only about the office
And, even if it does not reduce the actual hours worked, flexible working is becoming increasingly popular. Demand for work from home or work from anywhere arrangements were growing even before the pandemic.
Organisations that offer structures allowing people to choose hours that are convenient for their life, or build up extra leave through overtime, have seen the value staff place on that flexibility through improved recruitment and retention.
Of course, the cynical response is to say that, of course, people will always be happier when they can get more money for less work, whether they do this officially or unofficially. But research has consistently shown that money is, actually, a poor motivator when it comes to jobs and job satisfaction, and things like a sense of autonomy or positive working relationships are much more powerful. The easy cynicism misses that all these changes and experiments increase the workers’ autonomy and agency over their job and lives.
For many, the pandemic showed them a life where they had more control over their work than ever before, from the environment they were in, to the hours they worked. And, for many, a return to mandated hours in a bland office might be what their bosses want, but it is not what they yearn for.
The impact can be seen in the increase in people selling their skills on freelance platform sites. Whether they are testing the waters, or taking the plunge, more and more people are considering freelancing. And that’s leading to the rise in what is known as ‘flexforcing’.
Flexforcing is getting a new look
The concept of flexforcing is nothing new, in many ways it’s just a new term for an old practice. You hire people to do specific tasks, not to fill vacancies, in the same way you might have hired contractors, consultants or even spot-purchased services from freelancers. What’s new is how it’s becoming a viable option for almost everyone.
There’s also a key difference in who you hire. While freelancers, contractors and consultants made up the flexible workforce of the past, flexforcing in 2022 is somewhat changed. Many businesses are hiring their former staff on a project-by-project basis.
Those that are adopting flexforcing, both businesses and individuals, are finding it incredibly effective. Businesses, of course, save on costs. It can be a lot cheaper than maintaining a standing workforce. But it usually means higher quality work for them, too, as they can hire specialists they might not be able to justify on the payroll.
Staff and businesses are finding that the old employment contracts that supposedly brought loyalty and stability, were, in fact, just a straitjacket, committing both sides to a relationship that may have been good but wasn’t ideal either.
Or perhaps that is unfair.
Old employment contracts may have had their place, but they no longer do in a remote first work environment.
When they move to a flexforcing arrangement, a business can hire people to do what they love, when they want to do it. For the professionals being hired, their autonomy is recognised leading to a higher sense of fulfilment.
Frequently the relationships develop to be just as strong and healthy as formal employment can be. Flexforce staff and businesses often develop long-lasting relationships, even including that ‘extra-mile’ mentality, despite neither side ever wanting a formal employment arrangement.
Flexforcing might be a new concept for many, but it’s already a firmly established practice for thousands of businesses and millions of self-employed individuals.
And as more and more workers discover the concept, businesses looking to secure the best talent for their projects might find that flexforcing is the future with former staff members they already know.
This article was originally published in the European Business Review on 7th April 2022