Knowledge Workers Aren’t the Only Ones Who Want Flexibility; Here’s How to Offer It to Others

August 30, 2021

Contributor: Teresa Zuech

Employees want more flexibility and autonomy. These four strategies help HR leaders drive initiatives to extend flexibility beyond knowledge workers.

Employees could soon head for the door if you deny them flexibility over where, when and how they work, as well as what they work on and who they work with. It’s easy to think that mostly means you’re at risk of losing “knowledge workers” — which Gartner defines as those whose jobs involve handling or using information — but data shows they aren’t the only employees who want flexibility. 

The Gartner 2021 EVP Employee Survey of 5,000 employees and 77 HR leaders revealed that nearly half of employees who are not knowledge workers want their organization to provide them with greater control over when, where and how much they work. Right now, less than a third of this group reports having flexibility in any area of their work. 

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“The desire for flexibility in work isn’t only important for white-collar workers. It’s also important for workers whose jobs don’t meet that description, such as retail employees, on-site essential personnel or IT field technicians,” said Emily Strother, Senior Principal, Research, Gartner. “Successful organizations in today’s volatile labor market will attract and retain talent by providing more choices, embracing radical flexibility and adjusting their understanding of flexible work to align with employee priorities.”

Gartner has identified four ways HR leaders can expand their flexibility offerings to employees who aren’t knowledge workers and for whom location may not be flexible: 

1. Identify team-established flexibility limitations 

Establish norms around what empowers teams and team members to complete their work. This ensures that employees are accountable for their work while allowing more freedom for them to choose their own style and preferences, provided they align to the team’s needs.

Call center employees, for instance, could be given objectives (tasks and outcomes) but offered flexibility over the number of days they have to accomplish their goals and the team of employees available to contribute. This is a big shift from focusing solely on assigning work within rigid schedules and at specific locations. 

HR leaders can facilitate manager and employee conversations about flexibility by equipping managers with questions about the type of work styles that meet business objectives and how these can be adjusted to support more flexibility.

 Sample Flexibility Options for Employees Who Aren't Knowledge Workers

Watch now: Gartner experts discuss new ways to offer work flexibility for on-site employees

2. Determine the activities within roles that can be flexed

Even when roles seem to offer no room for flexibility, ask whether activities within a role can be flexible. This approach can surface hidden opportunities to provide employees with the wiggle room and autonomy they’re hoping for, and it improves the employee value proposition overall.

HR leaders can help managers map out employees’ activities for flexible work options. For example, while the role of IT and tech support might be considered inflexible due to the need to be on call, some tasks, like answering queries can still be done successfully under more flexible work arrangements.

3. Source manager-tested best practices

Traditionally, most organizations lean on HR leaders to identify solutions to improve flexible work environments. However, HR leaders’ direct reports and associates are typically knowledge employees who lack firsthand experience managing non-knowledge workers.

HR leaders must leverage insights from frontline managers to further understand best practices that work in the context of their employees’ real experiences. Also take note of which managers are outperforming to uncover flexible work options already being unofficially piloted within the organization.

 4. Work with cross-functional partners 

Enact cross-functional tiger teams to better understand how to extend flexibility to all employees. This approach allows HR and business leaders to share wisdom, expertise and understanding of the opportunities, and it drives organizational alignment and collaboration. 

Leading organizations can improve performance by providing flexibility on all aspects of their work and recognizing their workforce is composed of people, not just employees.

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