In this episode of All Things Work, Iva Purvanova, professor of management and chair of the Department of Management and Organizational Leadership within the College of Business and Public Administration at Drake University, joins host Tony Lee to discuss the implications and explore the boundaries of employer flexibility and employee autonomy.
Employees today have gained leverage and expect more say about where they work and when they need to be on the job in person. But their employers’ expectations are often different. In this episode of All Things Work, Ina Purvanova, professor of management and chair of the Department of Management and Organizational Leadership within the College of Business and Public Administration at Drake University, joins host Tony Lee to discuss the implications and explore the boundaries of employer flexibility and employee autonomy.
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Tony Lee: Welcome to All Things Work, a podcast from the Society for Human Resource Management. I'm your host, Tony Lee, head of content here at SHRM. Thank you for joining us. All Things Work as an audio adventure where we talk with thought leaders and taste makers to bring you an insider's perspective on all things work. Today we're discussing employee flexibility. At some companies, management thinks that greater flexibility means which days of the week employees are required to be in the office, but they may be taking too narrow an approach and aren't being clear about what they truly mean by flexibility. For example, some employers are flexible in terms of where people work, while others offer the flexibility of time and time off. And sometimes what employees really want isn't flexibility at all, but rather autonomy, which is an important differentiator. Joining us today to talk about this issue is Dr. Ina Purvanova. Ina is Professor of Management and Chair of the Department of Management and Organizational Leadership within the College of Business and Public Administration at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. Ina, welcome to All Things Work.
Ina Purvanova: Thank you. Thank you, Tony.
Tony Lee: So let's review kind of the current state of employee flexibility. It seems that employees have greater power post pandemic to ask for flexibility, the flexibility that they want in their jobs in the workplace. Do you think the status is temporary or are we seeing the new world of work?
Ina Purvanova: That's an interesting question because it requires a little bit of a crystal ball. Yes. Yeah, I don't have a crystal ball, but I do have data, and so I'm going to base my answer on data that I've collected from my various research projects on both sides of the pandemic really. So to briefly answer, I'm going to say yes, this is the new world of work, and I would like to share four reasons why I think that that is something that will stay with us. So number one, prior to the pandemic, we knew that organizations who implemented virtual work, so in some cases those were global companies who had to work across distance and across time. In some cases, those were organizations where they allowed employees to work individually at home, those were known as tele-commuters. Data that was available on those work practices, even prior to the pandemic actually show that those work practices were not negative for important organizational outcomes such as productivity, performance, even team cohesion or the job satisfaction of the employees working in those kinds of practices.
And even during the pandemic, a lot of business leaders were almost surprised at how they saw that performance didn't suffer, the productivity didn't suffer. So I think the first reason is kind of like a hardcore reason for why we're going to see this new world of work continue. And that is, it really is not a negative for productivity, is not a negative for performance. It is not a negative for many organizational outcomes that we really do care about. Another reason is that, again, even prior to the pandemic, there was a lot of data that really documented very well how burned out the American workforce was relative to many other conscious American employees reported higher levels of burnout even before the pandemic. I think that during the pandemic when individuals had an opportunity to kind of re-center and refocus, they realized that this work modality is actually better for their burnout, is actually better for their wellbeing, it's better for their mental health.
So I think that's a second important reason why employees are going to fight tooth and nail to keep this new work modality going. Now, another reason is really grounded in this very interesting interviews that we conducted during lockdown. We had an opportunity to speak with a number of employees who were working from home. Their spouses were working from home, obviously, and their kids were at home trying to learn or not going to daycare. So parents have to entertain them while obviously trying to perform their jobs. So what we expected to hear during those interviews was total chaos, total craziness. Well, Tony, what we actually heard was that people realized, you know what? I love my family." A lot of people realized that to a degree, we perhaps collectively as a society have been living some sort of a lie, telling ourselves that family comes first, but really working, working, working until we drop.
So I think people realized, you know what? I have to refocus myself on what actually is important to me as a member of this society that says family comes first. Family really is important and this work modality allows me to rededicate myself, to re-devote myself to my family way more than how things used to be. And I would say the last reason that I want to point to is based on current interviews that I'm conducting with employees across organizations in different job titles and all of that. And one thing that very clearly stands out to me, and it actually very well connects to the opening remarks that you made, was that it doesn't really matter what kind of an employee I'm speaking with. So I could be speaking with somebody who prefers to work from home. I could be speaking with somebody who prefers some sort of a mix, or I could be speaking with somebody who absolutely prefers to work in the office.
Regardless, at the end of the interview, when we speak about people's general hopes for the future of work, every single person says, "You know what? I prefer that this flexibility would stay." And that really goes back to that idea of autonomy that you mentioned earlier. What flexibility really means to people is the opportunity to make autonomous decisions, to make decisions that are based on their own needs and wanting desires. This opportunity to self determine how I work, when I work, where I work, how I integrate my personal life into my work life, my family life into my work life, that sense of freedom that this new work modality gives us is extremely, extremely powerful. And again, I think is a very compelling reason for why this new world of work would basically stay.
Tony Lee: That's great, Ina. Thank you. It's a terrific overview. Now, of course, what you focused on or what employees are seeking, which is fine, and you've got a lot of CEOs out there who say, "I want a happy workforce and a productive workforce," and this is the direction they're going. But now let's look at the other side. There are a growing number of CEOs and boards and executive teams that are saying, "It's not the same. When we don't have employees physically together, we don't have the same level of innovation. Culture suffers. So although the employee may be happier with the greater flexibility at home, we don't think it's a as productive a workplace as it can be." So what would you say to those CEOs who would say that?
Ina Purvanova: Absolutely. I think that it is very important to realize that there is validity to those concerns. There are dark sides, there's dark sides to anything probably, right? But one of the things that I absolutely am on the same page with companies or CEOs individually who may really wish for people to return to the office is something that I'm actually hearing in those interviews that I'm conducting with employees. Employees themselves recognize that they actually do feel more disconnected from their organizations than before. They, by the way, do not feel more disconnected from their immediate teams. So they are still able to maintain a very high level of team cohesion and just positive relationships with their team members through this combination of technology and in person interactions that's emerging for most teams, but they really do recognize that they feel less connected to the organization. So there is something to be said about the idea of returning to the office, at least on some base of the week to allow for that greater connection.
I also think that CEOs who make those kinds of determinations and decisions have a point too, in terms of the experience of new employees. And those may be employees who have just started with their company but have prior work experience, or it could be employees who are completely new to work. So maybe college graduates who are just starting their work experience. For those people, they really struggle to feel integrated, to feel inculturated into the organization when half of the people are not in the office half of the time or more. And in fact, especially new employees who are new to the world of work as well have shared with me that they feel that their direct supervisors are 'bad leaders', quote unquote, simply because they're not in the office a lot because those employees feel that their needs are not being met, they're not being taught to the ropes, they are not being introduced to how to do their actual jobs.
So they are some good reasons for why returning to the office in some shape or form makes a lot of sense. Now, I also want to say that there are some not so good reasons. So some points of disagreement perhaps that I would say I would have with companies who very much want to return to the office at all costs. I think one example of a bad reason is simply being old fashioned and unwilling to change. So that's never a good reason to continue on with old ways if literally the only reason why you want to continue with the old way is simply that that's all you know. Well, learn something new. Another really bad reason I think is, and that's probably the more important, is that a lot of organizations, a lot of top leaders who want to return to the office are doing it out of lack of trust.
They don't believe that employees can be productive. They almost feel like employees are not actually working and not doing a great job. I've heard from multiple employees share with me that they feel like that is offensive and actually disingenuous. If you think about all the emails that people received during the pandemic from their leaders, praising them about how great of a job they were doing and how business was booming and how productivity was through the roof, employees are sharing with me now, "Was this a lie? If they had seen that productivity did not budge, why are they suddenly assuming that it will budge? And why are they suddenly wanting me in the office? Did they lie to me?" So this lack of trust that is really leading to a lot of monitoring and a lot of suspicion, I don't think that that's a positive for organizations.
I actually really don't think that it is true that people have not been innovative. I think that during the pandemic, we saw a bunch of products emerge simply because people actually were... They rediscovered how to do their job, they rediscovered how to provide the service in a new way. They rediscovered how to reach out to a new audience that was never available to them before. So I kind of questioned the fact that innovation suffers. So to me, that would be under the side of the ledger of a bad reason to return people to the office.
Tony Lee: Yeah, no, that makes perfect sense. So you're hitting on some interesting points here. Let's separate remote work and return to the office from an employee autonomy, because it's one aspect of employer autonomy. But if it feels like, given what we have seen, we've seen the great resignation, we've the great reevaluation, is this really where I want to work? And what we hear back in our research is that a lot of employees, maybe having to go back to the office is part of it, but part of it too is they feel like that they had a lot of autonomy over the last couple of years, and now that autonomy is kind of slipping away, that they're being watched more carefully, that their bosses are a little more demanding. Is that the challenge? Is that part of the reason you think that employees are looking around and is that something that we'll see change?
Ina Purvanova: Right. I mean, it definitely is hard to give up something that you had and you appreciated. So I kind of really understand why employees may feel like, "Wait, I had all these freedoms and now I have to kind of play by the rules again." In my own research, I am frankly not seeing as much resistance though to the idea for returning to the office on some schedule. What I'm seeing resistance to is the idea of returning to the office full time. But most people would share, "I've understand that to be in the office is important." For example, people absolutely would say, "I really do feel more disconnected in this current work modality, so I would like to feel more connected again to my company."
So I don't know that a lot of people are completely resistant to any degree of return to the office, but I do think that it is a little bit of a challenge to find what that sweet spot will be, because everybody seems to have a different idea of what flexibility actually means in practice. So that would be something that would just kind of, we'll have to continue to see how it works its way through the system. But I generally think that most people understand that some degree of giving back on some of the complete freedom that they had would be necessary for the sort of greater good.
Tony Lee: Right. And everyone is talking about hybrid workplaces. We're certainly seeing hybrid workplaces, two days at home, three days in the office, three days in the office, two days, and whatever it might be. And that does seem to solve the issue to some extent. But again, talking about employee autonomy, deciding I don't want to go in at all this week. I want to work from home all week, or you've given me this big project and I need to work with these two teammates on that project, so I need the three of us to sit down in a room together for several days. But one of the other people says, "No, those aren't the days I'm in the office. So no, that's not going to work." How do you reconcile this?
Ina Purvanova: Right. That's a great point. I think that how you reconcile that is by setting clear expectations as an organization. One of the things that I do believe is a mistake that companies are engaging in is saying, "Oh, it's a free for all. Everybody can just decide when they come in, how often they come in," because that is where you begin to see this insane level of diversity in people's preferences. Like to just your point, some people would want to be in on a Monday, some people are going to be on a Tuesday, and all of that. So I think a more successful approach would be to set some expectations about, hey, if the majority of team members perceive that it is best to be together in a room so that we could white board ideas, let's everybody be in a room on those days and white board ideas.
If a team decides that they need to have an anchor day or two so that they can reconnect as a team in the office, let's everybody be respectful of that and be in the office on those days. I just don't think that there is an opportunity in the vast majority of the cases for this to just naturally occur. I think that people like to have some parameters, and if those parameters are set clearly, and if the expectations are communicated clearly, the vast majority of people will play by those rules because they feel like those rules have been implemented in a respectful sort of way.
Tony Lee: We've got time for one last area I wanted to dive a little bit more into, and that's culture. And you heard a lot of CEOs and board of directors that say, the company culture is the most critical aspect. We want everyone to be aligned and heading in the same direction. And you often hear the feedback that when employees have too much autonomy, they don't buy into a culture, they're their culture of themselves as opposed to the culture of the company. Do you think companies feel that way widely? Do you see any companies taking positive steps to address that?
Ina Purvanova: I have a slightly different view on that. First of all, let me just say I completely agree that culture is important, but I actually think that the best kind of culture, the most positive and the most inclusive kind of company culture actually emerges through employee autonomy. And what I mean here is individuals really need to feel like they own the culture. So they need to feel like they have been active participants in the creation of that culture or in the maintenance of the culture. So culture can't really be imposed because then it just is not motivational. It actually is de-motivational. I think that right now, it's a great time for organizations to actually do some soul searching, as to what kind of company culture do we have? Do we truly value employees?
If we say that we value employees, are we actually respectful of employees wanting needs within a framework? Again, we are not talking a free for all. We are talking about some sort of a framework that exists, but within that framework, are we respectful of people? Do people feel listened to and heard? Are they actually being able to help us build that culture versus just somebody who is supposed to sign onto the culture, which never really works very well?
Tony Lee: That is very good insight, very good advice. That's going to have to do it for today's episode of All Things Work. A big thank you to Ina Purvanova for sharing her insights into employee flexibility and remote work and back to work and all of those topics. But before we get out of here, I want to encourage everyone to follow All Things Work wherever you listen to your podcast, and also listener reviews have a real impact on a podcast visibility. So if you enjoyed today's episode, please take a moment to leave a review and help others find the show. Finally, you can find all of our episodes on our website at shrm.org/podcasts. Thanks for listening and we'll catch you next time on All Things Work.
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