With the fundamental disconnect between bosses and employees—a rift that’s only deepening, according to Sheela Subramanian, co-founder and VP of Slack’s Future Forum, a consortium focused on the future of work.
“These trends are all symptoms of work being fundamentally broken for most of us, dare I say,” Subramanian said on a panel Wednesday for Fortune Connect, Fortune’s exclusive leadership community. “Shifting back to how things used to be is not going to fix them.”
Subramanian quoted Spotify’s chief human resources officer, Katarina Berg, who advised against hiring adults just to treat them like children and expecting that to not backfire.
“People want to be treated like humans, they want to be trusted,” Subramanian said. “And this trust is what’s keeping them at their organizations as loyal and engaged employees.”
What can fix the damage: Choice and flexibility
Since September 2020, Future Forum has released reams of data that consistently confirms what good bosses and most workers already know: People want choice in how they work.
“They want to feel included and they want their voices heard,” Subramanian said Wednesday. “And they want to work somewhere where they feel connected to each other and to their leaders, regardless of where they’re located.”
Perhaps no perk matters more to a worker than flexibility, especially in a tight labor market. That all circles back to trust, Subramanian says—believing your workers will get their jobs done while living their lives. She cites a handful of Future Forum findings supporting that point: 80% of global employees want location flexibility. (That doesn’t mean fully remote jobs, which are going out of style; the vast majority of desk workers want something in the middle.)
And 94% percent of employees want schedule flexibility, which she said has remained a constant quarter after quarter. Indeed, jobs offering “core hours” or “async work” have become more popular than work-from-anywhere jobs, recent research from careers site Flexa found. In these jobs, workers agree to log on during a given window—such as 11 a.m. to 3 p.m.—but aside from that, can choose to work the hours that best suit them.
Stewart Butterfield, Slack’s then-CEO, echoed that sentiment in a Fortune Connect event in October 2022, emphasizing the cruciality of choice. “People do want structure, and people like boundaries,” Butterfield told Fortune editor-in-chief Alyson Shontell. “But they don’t like to be told what to do, so I think the secret is to not make them feel like their autonomy is being denied or that their ideas aren’t important, while still giving some structure.”
Give everyone a say
Some CEOs already recognize the importance of flexibility. Consider Airbnb, Yelp and Spotify, who have permanently instituted work-from-anywhere policies. At a Fortune roundtable in June 2022, J.C.Penney CEO Marc Rosen called flexibility “critical.”
“We are using new scheduling tools to see: How do we provide more flexibility in scheduling? How can we swap out a schedule at the last minute? How do you find a substitute and do that swap? How do we sort of gamify it?” Rosen said.
But other bosses tend to say they need people to work synchronously for business to function. Subramanian insisted flexibility within a framework is possible almost anywhere. “When I bring this up, I often get this deer-in-headlights look” from managers, Subramanian said.
She added that two-thirds of executives don’t actually include their employees in discussions around policies—no wonder there’s so much discontent.
To add insult to injury, the past three years have led worker expectations of transparency from bosses to skyrocket. “Most executives have been trained to know all the answers, to have certainty,” Subramanian explained. “And now employees expect executives to say, I don’t know, I’m still figuring it out, or—this is the hardest one—I need your help.”
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