Written by: Michele Parmelee, Global Chief People & Purpose Officer, Deloitte
Around the world, COVID-19 continues to spread and concern continues to grow. With much still unknown about the virus, authorities are urging those in higher-risk areas to stay home, even forcibly locking down some countries.
For businesses, this poses some unique challenges: How do we support the health and safety of our people, continue to serve customers and clients, and do what’s in the best interest of our communities? How do we foster continuity in times of crisis?
Since the outbreak of COVID-19, Deloitte has been encouraging our people to work remotely so they can safely continue serving clients with minimal interruption. Flexible work is nothing new for us. Deloitte first began implementing formal and informal flex work arrangements with an eye toward talent retention decades ago.
What exactly is flexible working?
For Deloitte, it means working remotely, predominantly from home; adjusting schedules to accommodate team, home, and client situations; adopting technology solutions to enable seamless collaboration; and teaming and flexing to meet fluctuating business needs. It also may encompass other approaches, such as abbreviated or flexible work hours; working longer, but fewer days each week; and job sharing.
When Deloitte began to roll-out its flexible work programs, we were not thinking about potential pandemics or other global crises. We were looking to provide our people with better work/life balance in todays “always on” and “always reachable” work environment.
What we’ve learned along the way is that flexible work arrangements can, indeed, be effective alternatives to office-based work—but only as long as the individual, organization, and client are aligned on expectations and rules of the road. That means fostering a workplace culture that recognizes and rewards productivity and performance, not presenteeism. It means ongoing efforts to combat the misconception that flex work is gender-driven. And it means encouraging transparency at all levels so employees can establish work schedules that enable them to prioritize their work and their well-being.
Another valuable lesson learned after years of leveraging flex work is that it can have some unintended, but very welcome, benefits. The use of flex work in mitigating fallout from COVID-19 is a powerful example of that. But there is more.
In recent years, we have found that flex work arrangements can help with Deloitte’s aspirational goals to achieve gender parity. In particular, flex work provides working parents the flexibility that a traditional office can’t, while allowing them to continue pursuing their professional aspirations. It has been reported that companies that enable flexible working have almost three times as many female leaders as traditional companies.
We also learned that flex work can help advance progress toward Deloitte’s environmental sustainability ambitions at a very critical time. When employees work from home rather than commute — by car, train, or plane — they help, in small but meaningful ways, reduce the organization’s carbon footprint. Meanwhile, those would-be commuters get to pocket the money they would have spent on travel, and can even live in lower-cost areas that are farther from urban centers. Organizations can save on real estate and other overhead costs, as well.
The data proves it: Among those who work remotely, both part- and full-time, productivity levels skyrocket—77% feel more productive when working remotely, and 30% feel they’ve accomplished more in less time. Flex workers also take shorter breaks, fewer sick days, and less vacation time. Clearly, flexible work works.
It is hard to know exactly how the COVID-19 situation will unfold. But what we do know is that flex work is putting businesses in a powerful position to help mitigate the impact. My hope is that we continue to leverage that influence long after the threat of COVID-19 has passed. Because when businesses begin to see flexible working less as a back-up option and more as a frontline solution, we can deliver on far more than just the bottom line.