Flex work: Five ways to foster engagement and belonging 

The motivations driving people to take up a job and stay with their employers have changed.

Employees now want work to fit in with their lives. They are re-imagining their social contract with work, what we at Mercer call the “lifestyle contract.”  

Of course, the usual career drivers of pay, benefits and security still apply. In today’s world where people see flexible work as an option and well-being as an imperative, it is choice, connection and contribution that are fuelling job fulfilment and cementing employee loyalty. 

Policies and tools can set clear guidelines for action, but it is managers and leaders who live it and “bring it to life.” Here, intentionality is key — companies must be committed to maintaining engagement and fostering belonging. 

Overall, this calls for a more nuanced, personalised and compelling employee experience (EX). Leading organisations can deliver such a package by focusing on the following actions:

1. Lead with listening — both inside and outside the organisation

Flexibility means something different for everyone, and people will look for different types of flexibility at different stages of their life.
Deep insights are required to understand the nuances of these shifting expectations and desires. Each segment of your employee population must be asked what they want. A balance will need to be struck here — you should aim to provide employees with enough choice (as outlined in the new lifestyle contract), without overwhelming them with too many options (or providing them with too little steer).

Employee listening tactics can be used to provide a foundation of understanding. Maintain a continuous dialogue that is facilitated, but not dominated, by managers. Ensure you close the feedback loop so people feel heard, valued and supported.

The insights you gain can then drive the development, refinement, nurturing and evolution of your new EX. This will ensure you create a tailored solution that dovetails with the things that employees care about.

As part of the EX development process, personas can be used to empathise with target segments.  This will help ensure you invest in the things that matter most. Measuring EX progress through careful listening and monitoring is also vital.

This listening can extend outside of your business too. Use external market research or social listening activities to gauge the views and values of potential candidates. In response, your EX and employee value proposition (EVP) can be refined to attract the people you need. In other words, they can be brought in line with the needs and wants of the talent that your business is looking to attract. Naturally, both EX and EVP should also reflect the promises made in your company’s employee deal.

2. Formalise the informal

Even though three quarters (74%) of employees believe hybrid and remote working will lead to greater success for their business, absence doesn’t always make the heart grow fonder. In fact, almost seven in ten (67%) workers note that they would struggle to build and cement relationships working permanently in a remote or hybrid model. Employees want access to choice, yet for some, this may be detrimental to their ability to connect with others.

Opportunities for social interaction are essential to foster a sense of belonging. Not surprisingly, it’s remote workers who are the least likely to report feeling like they belong in their teams, as they may lack opportunities to socialise with their teammates.

A flexible world calls for employers to intentionally create opportunities for employees to connect, such as:

  • Employee resource groups
  • Formalised coffee breaks
  • Employee pulse surveys
  • Mentoring opportunities
  • Open dialogue around the business’ cultural values

3. Work in partnership to re-design jobs that work

The evolution of the lifestyle contract has expanded the list of managerial responsibilities. Pressure now falls on managers and leaders to drive initiatives that bolster employee engagement and belonging. These initiatives are all well and good, but they require considerable time and resources.

HR must therefore act as a support system for managers. HR should:

  • Help provide managers with necessary upskilling opportunities
  • Ensure that managers can thrive while effectively supporting their teams, whether with knowledge or skilled-based work

Businesses are increasingly relying on their employees’ ability to adapt, flex and embrace change. Indeed, according to the World Economic Forum, core skills like resilience, flexibility and agility are ranked highly by employers. Looking to the future, two thirds of employers believe these same skills will only continue to grow in importance. Managers will therefore be called upon to embody these traits and should be supported in this endeavour.

Redesigning jobs with both flexibility and well-being in mind will also help managers to meet their responsibilities. This will also make their teams a more attractive place for people to work.

This redesign can be achieved using data from listening initiatives, including focus groups and ethnographic surveys. To support this activity, managers can partner with their teams to understand what level of flexibility is needed.

This can highlight ways to reduce the frictions that sap the energy of employees, and pave the way for the implementation of more successful, productive and flexible working models.

The following questions can be asked to improve the way jobs are performed:

  • Why is a job frustrating, overwhelming, exhausting or over-demanding?
  • Where are the bottlenecks in the process?
  • How can the job be designed to connect (and meet) the needs of the company and the individual?
  • How effective is our technology stack in driving efficiency and removing friction?

Opening up dialogue in this way will build a solid basis for successful relationships between managers and the teams that report to them. In turn, employees will be less likely to “check out” when they face frustrations at work, and will be more likely to share their thoughts and experiences. Overall, this will help to maintain employee engagement.

The idea that being more visible in the workplace equates to more opportunities is yet to be shaken, with two thirds of employees believing that remote working could hinder their chances of promotion. This perception can lead to undesirable behaviours such as presenteeism, which mistakenly values optics over outcomes and saps employee energy. To avoid this, establish a performance culture that emphasises outcomes and value-creation. Encourage flexibility and creativity in how business goals are achieved. Focus on ideas that fast-track innovation and provide more agency to individuals.

4. Foster psychological safety

A Harvard Business School study has found that while higher performing teams don’t necessarily make fewer mistakes, they are better at talking about them. What’s their secret? Psychological safety, which strengthens team bonds and nurtures a sense of belonging as people feel able to share their views or raise concerns. This enables an employee to feel they are an active contributor to the team’s success, as it helps to galvanise action and champions the employee’s voice, whatever their experience or seniority in the business. 

As with the EX, the policies laid out in a risk and compliance strategy are only enabled through an organisation’s culture. Take remote access and cyber security, which tops the list of HR concerns in relation to remote work and digitalisation. As part of the onboarding process, a new team member may well sit and watch numerous videos on risk mitigation, but for these to have any effect the employee needs to feel psychologically safe so they can speak up when it matters. 

5. Commit to culture

Almost three quarters (74%) of employers agree that culture is crucial when implementing flexible working. Managers and leaders should live and breathe this through their behaviour. Over half (54%) of businesses say they have already institutionalised flexibility into their cultures, yet nearly two thirds (63%) of employees are concerned that they’ll become disconnected or disenfranchised from the culture and people in a permanent flexible working model. The reality of a company’s culture, and a manager’s understanding of it, is tested in unexpected moments. Ask the following questions to see if your company is really committed to flexibility:

  • What can employees expect from their employer when life gets in the way?
  • What happens when a last-minute doctor’s appointment comes up, a sick child needs to be picked up from school, or an employee needs to visit a relative in the hospital?
  • Does the company policy reflect and adapt to reality in these moments?
  • Do managers still have a flexible mindset in these situations?

Embracing all forms of flexibility calls for intentional leadership behaviours, coupled with intentional managerial actions that centre employees. This will pave the way for an engaged workforce where each person feels they belong.

83% of companies now have a formal flexible work policy, up from 69% in 2019.
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If your business is just beginning its flexibility journey, put these actions on your priority list:

  • Flexibility first:
    Flexibility is underpinned by policies and ways of working, but it becomes a reality through a shared flexible mindset across all stakeholders. To ensure this is the case, take the time to get buy-in from a range of stakeholders, including senior leaders and influencers.
  • Co-create solutions:
    Your business may face roadblocks to embedding flexibility. Co-create solutions with your workforce by engaging them through employee listening initiatives.
  • Embed trust:
    Trust makes or breaks flexibility. If a culture of trust doesn’t already exist, this needs to be worked on before flexible working can be rolled out. Trust needs to be established between managers and their teams, as well as between peers. 
  • Champion autonomy:
    Micromanagement comes from a need for control. Such an approach doesn’t work in a flexible environment, nor does it help to build trust. Instead, partnership needs to be fostered, with managers empowering their teams to be more autonomous and to enhance their own productivity.
  • Intentional behaviour:
    Desired behaviours need to be exhibited by managers, who should act as role models for employees. HR should lead training that focuses on a range of behaviours that will deliver flexibility: team building, collaboration, performance tracking, remote people management, resilience and empathy. 

If your business is ramping up its commitment to flexibility, prioritise the following:

  • Lead from the front:
    Focus on building intentional leadership skills in your management teams, so that managers can cope with the challenges that flexible working brings. These skills should include: empathy, resilience and adaptability.
  • Moments that matter:
    Flexibility can create distance between teams. Facilitate social connection and collaboration, striking the right balance between intentional moments and organic conversations to build team rapport and trust.
  • Ease tensions:
    Flexible working can create tensions between teams, especially when it is unclear where responsibilities lie. This can create a festering sense of injustice. Implement an open and equitable approach that encourages transparency and communication, and which encompasses all the different dimensions of flexibility. 
  • Align your model:
    A business’ “work from anywhere” policy may be ahead of the pack, but if the day-to-day work involves too much bureaucracy, then flexibility is yet to be optimised. Expand your approach to flexibility beyond simply where or when people work. Do this by ensuring your procedures are flexible and empowering. This will help instil a flexible mindset across your business, and also unlock new skill opportunities.
  • Keep your ear to the ground:
    Flexibility requires long-term listening, so open up active and passive listening and feedback channels for leaders, managers and teams. This will ensure that your flexibility policies respond to people’s evolving needs and continue to be fit for purpose.

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