As with many things in the world right now, the topic of flexible working is extremely polarizing. Some argue that the rise of remote and non-linear work is one of the few positive legacies of the pandemic. Its proponents point to the shift in work life balance allowing us to focus more on our families, friends, hobbies and mental wellbeing, while also helping us work to our own individual productivity rhythms.

However, many of the biggest companies in the world including Amazon, Twitter, Disney and Goldman Sachs have issued return to the office mandates, citing the importance of physical interaction and workplace culture. Others have also raised valid concerns about how remote work affects the development of younger employees and those focused on career progression.

The subject of how, where and when we should work is an evolving situation that is likely to be a tug-of-war between these two opposing views during the coming years. But amid this backdrop of flux, more nuanced solutions are emerging that attempt to give employees elements of flexibility, while offsetting the potential any potential downsides. And, perhaps most interesting of all, the conversation is also moving beyond the office as companies experiment with ways to give flexibility to blue collar workers.

Hornbach is a German DIY retailer with more than 11,000 staff that gives all employees, whether they're in head office, on the shop floor, or in the warehouse, permission and autonomy to control when they work. As part of the Tailored Working initiative that it launched last year, an online portal allows staff to regularly update their work schedule to meet their individual needs. Hornbach employees can switch between being full-time and part-time, they can increase and decrease their hours, or they can condense their hours into four longer days to effectively create a four-day week. ​

In the UK, building firm Sir Robert McAlpine is working with the Timewise consultancy to explore how it can bring flexible working onto its building sites. It is currently running two flexible working trials, which have both recently been extended because of positive feedback and results. On one building site in Sunderland, workers have the option of working longer hours Monday to Thursday, so they can leave at lunchtime on Friday. On another site in Surrey, every employee gets one “flex” day every three weeks that they can take off. To allow for this operationally, every employee is paired with a “flex buddy” whose job it is to oversee their core responsibilities on the days they are not on site.

Japanese trading company Mitsui & Co. has also taken steps to embrace its employees’ life goals outside the office by formally giving them permission to launch side hustles for the first time. Believed to be an attempt to attract the best gen Z talent, a statement from the company said: “After implementing policies on remote work and flexible work hours, we believed the time was right to do even more, so employees can pursue both career development and new working styles.”

A McKinsey survey from last year underlines why it is so important to offer employees flexibility. It found that 40% of global employees say that flexibility is the key factor in determining whether they are happy to stay in their current role. So the challenge for companies is: how can you build an infrastructure that offers meaningful flexibility to your employees, without cannibalising your processes, culture and bottom line?

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