Why the future of work is all about flexibility and lots of it

People working in office

This article was originally published in B&T.

The concept of flexible workplaces is nothing new. For decades, researchers have been highlighting the importance of providing employees with flexibility; the usual stuff like part-time work, staggered starts or (very radically) working from home a day a week.

As we emerge into a post-pandemic world, these notions now seem quaint. The future is all about ultra-flexible workforces, where the workplace is anywhere and everywhere, and where employees are free to choose how and when they work.

This transformation is both radical and necessary – at least in the creative industries where the battle for talent has put the spotlight on employers to move with the times or see their employees move on.

When ultra-flexibility is good for business

Icon Agency recently joined a small group of progressive firms to introduce ‘ultra-flexibility’ for its employees.

Essentially, this involves employees deciding (in consultation with their managers) what days they want to work in the office (if at all). They can set their own hours within limits, and can even work remotely from anywhere in Australia permanently.

And the freedoms don’t end there. Under Icon’s Holiday+ program, staff who take leave to travel internationally can work anywhere in the world for up to two months.

The reason for this policy? It’s really good for business, according to Icon managing director Joanne Painter.

After polling employees and analysing the agency’s COVID-era performance, the evidence was clear: give employees responsibility, autonomy and trust, and they will reward you with improved productivity and loyalty.

And while the pandemic certainly helped, Painter conceded that getting there wasn’t easy.

For companies like Icon Agency – which had proudly built a thriving studio in inner Melbourne – the threat posed by the pandemic back in March 2020 was existential.

People working in office

It meant abandoning traditional practices and procedures, and moving to entirely remote ways of working in just days.

“At the start of the pandemic, businesses were facing fundamental operational challenges. Offices that were the focus of collaboration, culture and creativity were suddenly empty, face-to-face meetings became virtual, and the primary mode of working was remote and online,” Painter said.

“But for Icon, what transpired was a reimagining of ways of working – changes that have proven so effective that the ‘normality’ of everyday office work will never return.”

Painter said moving to an ultra-flexible workplace model was “a leap of faith”.

“Having spent over a decade managing teams, building culture and forging client relationships in a certain way, adopting a completely different model was both exciting and challenging,” she said.

“Ultimately, we realised that flexi-work is no longer a nice-to-have; it’s essential in a modern creative workplace. As the battle for talent intensifies, flexi-work will increasingly become a recruitment and retention advantage.

“Lockdown restrictions served to accelerate exponentially the trend towards workplace flexibility. Employees now know that flexible working arrangements are very much possible, and have come to expect them.”

Trust and communication key to making ultra-flexible arrangements work

Being located in the world’s most locked-down city meant Icon’s bustling office had to be temporarily abandoned. It also required trust in a fully remote workforce – trust which was repaid by remarkable business growth.

“Working from home during COVID hasn’t just ushered in a new era of workplace flexibility; it has fundamentally changed the dynamic between employer and employee,” said Painter.

“In embracing a new, ultra-flexible work model, we are recognising that employees have earned our trust and shown that flexible work is viable and sustainable in the long term.”

“It helped enormously that COVID forced not just ourselves, but our clients and peers, to move to remote working for weeks and months at a time. This forced ‘test run’ allowed us to iron out any issues and fine-tune our remote work model and policy to benefit both employees and the business.

“Leaders and line managers provided important feedback on productivity, mental health impacts of working from home, and team morale. Our team were polled several times about their preferences and industry research reviewed to identify best practice.”

Joanne Painter

One other legacy of COVID – and a key consideration in moving to flexi-work – is managing employee mental health and wellness.

“Employers have taken on an even bigger role in supporting mental health and overall employee wellness,” said Painter. “That’s something we want to continue.”

Throughout lockdown, there were frequent ‘how are you feeling’ calls to Icon staff, mental health days off were actively encouraged, and a new Employee Assistance Program was introduced.

A warm reception

Under the new ‘Iconic Ways of Working’, people can determine where and when they work, just as long as they keep clients happy.

Those who want to be office-based can, but the expectation is many will be remote most of the time. Everyone has been provided with all the tech and software required for remote working.

There may be occasions for physically coming together in teams, around projects or just having fun, but those calls will be made by the people and teams involved.

Flexibility can push geography aside, which is being welcomed.

“The ability to work the way you want is incredible,” said Icon’s sales director, Rob Cleeve.

“It’s an empowering decision. The difference between choosing to come in x days a week, versus certain days being mandated, is a big one.”

For employees with international backgrounds like Cleeve, Icon’s Holiday+ ultra-flexible international work model is particularly welcome.

“The freedom to work a few weeks or months from overseas is the bit that really excites me,” he said.

“I’m an expat who won’t have seen my family for three years by the time I (hopefully) visit the UK in August. I can work from England and still have afternoons and evenings to catch up with friends and family – and my beloved London.”

Employee Rob with his family

Empowering happiness

Ultimately, empowering employees through a flexible work model is a reflection of Icon Agency’s evolution.

“As a purpose-driven organisation, adopting a progressive, employee-centred model sends a powerful signal to our people, our future employees and our clients,” said Painter.

“If this sounds like a dream set-up, it’s because we’ve designed it for people and productivity. It’s us embracing change for happiness.”

Top tips for Iconic Ways of Working:

1. Engage openly with staff.

2. Trust your staff; give them a say in ways of working (and listen closely to their feedback).

3. Emphasise that flexibility cuts both ways. The needs of clients and the business must be met.

4. Avoid rules over when and where to work; focus on outcomes.

5. Reimagine the office as a destination for collaboration, creativity and socialising; make it an environment people are excited to be in.

To learn more about working for us and our culture, head to our careers page.