The pandemic has ushered in more freedom in the workplace for many employees. Will leaders need to rein that in? An organizational psychologist offers her insights.
In an era when employees have more leeway than they might have had in the past—and as public health recommendations continue to fluctuate—leaders may be wondering: How much is too much?
Nicole Lipkin, an organizational psychologist and founder of Equilibria Leadership Consulting, has written about the unintended consequences that can emerge when employees are given too much flexibility in their daily routines. Some of those consequences haven’t changed, such as muddy expectations and unclear communication. That doesn’t mean the rules from before still apply. “[The pandemic has] definitely forced companies and leaders to look at how we treat people—what are people’s needs?” she says. “I also think it’s been a real eye-opener.”
But the pandemic won’t last forever. So should flexibility be reined in eventually? Ultimately, the issue might not be about flexibility at all. Instead, it could be a matter of setting proper expectations and having a strong understanding of your team.
“I think understanding that people have different needs, different values, and are motivated by different things—we’ve always known that; I just think it’s become so clear now. That has to be acknowledged,” she says.
Employees’ varying needs don’t necessarily change the needs of the organization, and the work still needs to get done. This push might lead to some difficult conversations in the coming months. The possibility of returning to the office could also raise questions about how flexible leaders should remain once conditions look more like 2019 than 2020.
Handling the return too prescriptively could cause problems. In the case of Apple, for example, employees have raised concerns about its strict approach. Lipkin says leaders are in a sensitive place at this time as they try to reset parameters.
“One of the most important things for leaders to do is have very clear conversations around expectations, like what is expected of this time period versus the future,” she says.
Lipkin says many issues that surface around flexibility are the result of unclear or incomplete communication between staff and supervisors. It’s something she says she struggles with herself.
“We as a society tend to suck at communicating and do a lot of mind reading or expect a lot of mind reading to happen,” she says.
For example, if expectations weren’t properly set and clearly communicated in the first place, employees have to guess what their managers want. She adds that it can be harder than it sounds to set expectations.
“Collaboration on expectations—of work product, what it’s like, deadlines, all of that—is imperative,” she says. “We’re just so busy and so rushed that we often leave that part out.”
Remember That Flexibility Goes Both Ways
Of course, given what we’ve learned during the COVID-19 pandemic, expectations and communication need to be mutual, especially as the delta variant creates more ambiguity.
That conversation will require a lot of clear expectation-setting on both sides, Lipkin says. For one thing, leaders will need to set a path forward—and it won’t look like the path that existed before the pandemic.
“It’s important for leaders to understand this is not the time to be stuck in the same old ways,” she says. “This is the time to be agile. This is the time to think differently and to gather perspective and to co-create what the future looks like with employees to let them be part of it. And that’s a much longer conversation.”
Showing flexibility can help workplaces support their teams. But communication around flexibility is more about developing a mutual understanding of what each side needs to get things done. Employees and leaders alike will face challenges with stress and tough decisions in the months to come. By accommodating employees while being clear about what has to change, organizations face a better chance of making sense of this unusual time.
“We need to give each other a little grace and room,” Lipkin says. “It’s OK not to be at 100 percent.”