How to Add Flexibility to the Workplace

9th June 2022

As part of Boardroom’s special partnership with ESAE, Chiara Gasparotto, Deputy CEO of ESTRO, the European Society for Radiotherapy and Oncology, reflects on the changes the pandemic has brought to the way we work… and the need to embrace and formalize them.

The last two years have been an incredible challenge for the world, leaving many scars in families and communities, and questioning the readiness of healthcare systems around the globe. At the same time, associations have been obliged to re-think about processes, products and value offered. While it remains challenging, we have now a unique opportunity to capture and structure the changes we were forced to put in place, and which transformed the way we work. 

It starts with the staff

There is one main success factor that is always crucial for all associations, and even more so for the ones facing change: the staff. 

The staff can be an engine for change, supported by your governance and acting jointly as allies. Strong from this alliance with the volunteers, the staff is the group of stakeholders you need for achievements to be reached. Associations need engaged professionals, committed to the community you serve and to the vision of the association. 

The pivotal role of competent staff supported by solid governance bodies has been very clear when faced with the pandemic, when all processes had to be altered, and implemented on the ground with minimal time to learn and adapt. It is thanks to the support of both our volunteers and the hard work and commitment of the staff that ESTRO could continue providing value to its members during the pandemic.

In addition to the ability of facing changes during the pandemic, motivating the staff and ensuring appropriate working conditions have been common challenges for all of us. Today, these challenges allow us to think about the previous working arrangements and assess if those are efficient and motivating. Looking at the future, we must ensure that associations sustain a culture of innovation and flexibility, that must also encompass flexibility for the staff.  

The lockdown did not leave us with any choice: we all switched to remote working. With the restrictions relaxing, we believe you cannot fail to recognize that some of the reorganizational changes are positive. So, after two years, we should now embed those changes in our structure and way of working. The message is really: capture the change now. 

Structural teleworking

Structural teleworking relates to work that could be performed on the employer’s premises but that is instead performed outside these – including from home – on a regular basis and at least one day a week, that is the minimum legally required to be considered structural teleworking. Structural teleworking is legally regulated and, among other obligations, requires an agreement between parties.

During lockdown we surveyed the staff regularly to assess their teleworking experience. ESTRO is a mid-size association of currently 27 staff members. After one month of teleworking, a significant majority – 93% of the respondents – scored the working from home experience as positive. After one year of teleworking the positive trend continued, increasing to 97% of respondents. The two main benefits remained similar, namely the ability to better focus and the absence of commuting. The flexibility and ability to organize one’s time scored quite low as a benefit at the beginning of the pandemic, only 29%, but grew substantially to 63% after one year, showing a learning curve in time management. Similarly, isolation, lack of communication and ergonomics remained the two main difficulties; balancing work with family management (especially kids) scored as one of the difficulties at the beginning of the lockdown, 23% of respondents, while decreased to only 7% after one year, when schools’ activities were (almost!) back to normal. 

Considering the above, since October 2021, ESTRO decided to embrace structural teleworking and we are now blending seamlessly working from home and working at the office.

The conceptual framework that guided ESTRO’s change towards structural teleworking considered not only the feedback of the staff but also the specificities of the three main actions we perform when working: meeting, working and thinking. Each of these areas has its own specific needs, and structural teleworking is the work modality that can reconcile and respond to the needs of each macro area as explained below. 

Meet, work, think

When we work, we need time and space to meet, create interaction with colleagues and stakeholders. We also need time and space to work in the classical sense of the term, meaning that we must meet deadlines, perform administrative tasks, prepare reports, budgets, meetings… Finally, we need time and space to think and strategize, in order to allow the association to advance and respond to the needs of the community we serve. Do not assume that only managers need this. Every member of the staff needs time to think in order to improve in their domain.  Each of these activities respond to different needs. From the sense of belonging to the need to refill your batteries. Consequently, these three activities require different levels of flexibility and suitable spaces. Structural teleworking allows you to combine these three aspects and accommodate them with suitable environments. 

There is something else, very subtle, that goes hand in hand with the framework just mentioned, and that must be factored in when implementing structural teleworking: the culture of the organization. This is something that cannot be changed or implemented overnight, and this is not to be underestimated. 

Before the pandemic, at ESTRO we already had a set of core values and competencies shared by the staff, which are the standard basis for our performance evaluations. Responsibility, collaboration, flexibility and autonomy play a central role in the defined values and core competencies and are effectively enablers to structural teleworking. I believe that the culture doesn’t change with teleworking, it actually becomes an enabler, it becomes even more essential to the functioning of the Society.  

Based on these principles, we have been scaling down our offices, moving into a smaller space with a flexible design and different types of working stations – some more collaborative accommodating several people working, others more isolated, as well as a dedicated meeting room for governance or staff meetings. Similarly, based on the specific needs and preferences and in agreement with the direct manager, each staff member can choose how many days they work from home, with a minimum of one day working from home per week to a fully remote working schedule. 

A special mention to the legal side of this change: an addendum has been supplemented to all contracts to be fully compliant with the legal obligations. In addition, an allowance covering general cost of working from home per day is included in the monthly salary, according to the working schedule chosen by each staff member. Office supplies have been provided on demand. Structural teleworking is especially interesting in an international environment like in Brussels: with attention to remaining compliant with national regulations and insurance, it is possible for certain periods of time to work remotely from abroad.  

Structural teleworking and flexibility have a lot to do with motivation and retention of staff. From different studies (ref Robert Half[1]), we observe some interesting overall tendencies: for example, that almost 50% of employers notice increasing voluntary departures of employees nowadays compared to before the pandemic and about one third of employers are preoccupied by retaining their staff. The pandemic has changed the system of values: culture and soft skills have become predominant. An agile work environment, encouraging flexibility and adaptability to one’s needs, can better support this shift and retention of talents.  

To conclude

We should respond to the instability brought by the pandemic with the stability of a clear framework for teleworking. Change is not an everlasting situation, but rather a glimpse of what the future requires. And we know now that we must remain ahead of the curve by adding flexibility to the working arrangements. If we want to build associations that are time-proof, with both and solid governance structure and talented staff that are apt to face future challenges, we must add flexibility to the equation. Staff Retention is essential: the right salary is necessary but is not sufficient. Allowing for positive working environment, for mobility and flexibility is of paramount importance. Being empowered to work in several environments and according to changing needs – facilitating at times networking and brainstorming, and at times a better use of time and coordination with other activities – is invaluable.

[1] R. Half, Un marche du travail tendu et marqué par l’inquiétude, link : Un marché du travail tendu et marqué par l’inquiétude | Robert Half

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