Making your job suck less means upending the workplace as we know it

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Making your job suck less means upending the workplace as we know it
What many workers want is flexibility. onetime/Getty Images
  • Some employers are exploring uncoventional setups, like the four-day workweek, to combat burnout.
  • Yet what most employees want is flexibility. Having that can help them reduce stress at work.
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It looks like the holy grail for any job: four days' work for five days' pay.

The four-day workweek is the latest buzzy example of how some employers hope to combat worker burnout. Other methods include pretty offices, paid sabbaticals, and one of the biggest legacies of the pandemic: remote work.

Yet what's needed most, workplace experts told Business Insider, is greater flexibility — and a more thoughtful definition of what that means for each company or industry. Employers and their workers have to let go of the tendency to fear change, and instead, radically rethink how we work, experts said.

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Flexibility might apply to where people work, when they do it, what processes or tools they use, and even whom they work with, experts said. Essentially, it's about choice.

"It's about giving people more control over their workweeks so that they can balance the things that are important at work and personally," Ryan Anderson, the VP of global research and insights at MillerKnoll, told BI.

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Letting workers pick their schedules

Offering flexibility in the workplace isn't a one-size-fits-all solution. Nurses, for example, generally aren't asking to work from home, Will Howard, director of HR research & advisory services at McLean, a research firm, told BI. Yet it's common in nursing to trade shifts, he noted.

Other variations involve setting "core hours," when everyone must be working, Howard said, but then allowing workers to choose the other hours that are convenient for them. In other cases, it might involve letting workers pick their own schedules or offering summer hours, he said.

Unconventional setups can be conventional in some jobs, Howard said. The work patterns of pilots or those who toil away on oil rigs can vary widely. Bosses who look for unique work setups can find examples that could serve as models, he said. "There are people who have been doing six months on six months off," Howard said. "These types of flexibility exist elsewhere."

Adding elasticity into work often comes down to the person or the organization. "The hardest part for leaders or managers to embrace is that it's going to look different for everyone to some degree, because everyone's definition of balance is going to look different," Kristen Lipton, a managing director at Gallup, told BI.

That balance might be difficult to achieve, in part because bosses don't always trust their workers. And not all workers have faith in their employers either.

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There are also limits to what can ultimately be offered, according to Steven Rogelberg, an organizational psychologist and professor at the University of North Carolina at Charlotte. "We want to be flexible, but we need to be reasonable. And both parties need to be reasonable," he told BI.

Rogelberg said it's not outlandish for an employer to require people to show up to an office two or three days a week. "Someone's paying you to do a job. Like you're not entitled to say, 'Yeah, I want everything. I can work any way I want,'" he said. "It's just not realistic. There's a coming together that needs to happen."

Helping managers "unstick" how work gets done

Managers play a key role in helping foster flexibility by asking workers what flexibility means to them, Lipton said. Because workers have different talents and varying needs, a different approach might be needed depending on the person, she said.

"Understanding the role of the manager is so difficult, because you're trying to balance the expectations that are coming down from the organization about some of these policies," she said, referring to flexibility.

One of the most effective ways for injecting flexibility into a workplace is by establishing change at a team level, Anderson said. Employers might uncover new ways to combat burnout by giving team leaders the power to "unstick" themselves from the way work has long been done at an organization.

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Radical flexibility

It's no surprise that increased say over their workdays is something employees want: More than 80% want some autonomy on where they work, according to a Future Forum study released in early 2023. But what more workers — 93% of them — seek is schedule flexibility.

That means going beyond some form of remote work. For employers that are struggling to keep workers happy — or to attract them at all — being flexible means rethinking how roles are set up, Emily Rose McRae, senior director analyst at the research firm Gartner, told BI. A shortage of workers in many industries means employers offer what she calls "radical flexibility."

"What if, instead, employees gave you what their availability was?" McRae said, adding that bosses might work with employees to agree on a minimum number of hours needed.

Being willing to do things differently is often good for business, McRae said. Gartner research found that when employers go big on flexibility — and don't limit it to when and where people work — the share of employees who are "high performers" jumps by 40%.

New approaches can also help pull in workers. That's something that's been difficult for many employers since the economy began its rebound from the pandemic.

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Employers that say they can't offer remote work or other forms of flexibility are often the ones struggling to draw workers, McRae said. She said employers that are willing to reconsider how work gets done at their organization can "massively increase" their talent pool, hang onto workers longer, and get better results from their teams because people's lives are better balanced.

Anderson also sees giving workers more options as a wise move for employers: "The smart approach is to support choice, and then provide great choices," he said.

Do you have something to share about what you're seeing in your workplace? Insider would like to hear from you. Email our workplace team from a nonwork device at thegrind@businessinsider.com with your story or to ask for one of our reporter's Signal numbers. Or check out Business Insider's source guide for tips on sharing information securely.

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