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Commentary: Companies are ‘flex-washing’ to attract talent–but there will be a backlash



When we think about flexible work, greenwashing may not be the first thing that comes to mind, but it’s more relevant than you might realize. Just as companies have overstated and put a spin on their environmental and sustainability initiatives to appeal to growing consumer preferences for green brands, many are falling into a similar pattern with their flexible work policies and are treading dangerously close to “flex-washing”.

Companies have been widely using “flexible work” in their attempts to attract talent in the wake of the Great Resignation. According to Jabra’s 2022 Hybrid Ways of Working Report, 63% of employees prefer a hybrid work setup that provides flexibility, yet a clearly defined standard of what that means does not exist. Given its popularity, it’s no wonder flexible work is front and center in many companies’ recruiting and retention efforts. However, most flexible work policies fall short of the true meaning of flexibility.

Many hybrid work policies come with strings attached–typically requiring workers to be in the office a certain number of days per week or online between certain hours a day without much justification as to why. Others restrict where employees can reside, requiring them to live within commuting distance of an office. These are not truly flexible policies.

What the last couple of years proved is that there are many traditional “office jobs” that don’t require a physical office. While offices do provide utility when it comes to certain activities like networking and team building, the pandemic has proved that many jobs can be done effectively from anywhere.

It’s true that not every job can be done with complete flexibility. For example, brokers are confined to NYSE trading hours and medical administrators must contend with regulations on accessing patient records. The issue arises when companies claim to offer flexible work options to traditional office jobs but really only mean the option to work from home a couple of times a week.

We can all agree a full-time, in-office mandate isn’t flexible. But is it really any more flexible to mandate Monday, Tuesday, and Thursday in the office, while Wednesday and Friday must be worked from home?

In either case, work location is enforced by the employer. Just because some remote work is “allowed” doesn’t mean that it leads to an increased sense of belonging, motivation, trust, mental well-being, and overall work-life balance. That’s simply the appearance of flexibility.

What does real flexibility look like then? Autonomy. Flexible work policies that live up to their name put trust at the forefront, allowing employees to choose when and where they work best even if that doesn’t align with the traditional nine-to-five schedule. In fact, that same Jabra study showed that employees with full autonomy to choose where and when they work reported the highest levels of inclusion, productivity, trust, and well-being when compared to those employees with limits placed on their location and schedule autonomy. Despite this, only 20% of employees globally say they have complete freedom to choose where and when they work.

Being able to customize schedules and locations to the most convenient and productive option, individualized to each employee’s needs and preferences, is the definition of flexible work. Of course, there still needs to be accountability at the individual level–but when done well, flexible work will ultimately be a net positive for the company as it will empower employees to succeed and be their most productive while also fostering loyalty and commitment.

It’s one thing to allow employees to be flexible, but something else entirely to enable them to do it. To maintain work continuity from anywhere, organizations need to provide employees with flexible technologies that were actually designed for this style of distributed work. Saying an employee can work from anywhere, but then effectively anchoring them to an office desk because of outdated technology is a fast way to breed resentment among a workforce, which can in turn spur an increase in resignations.

Despite changing economic headwinds, the job market is still tight. In fact, over 40% of workers plan to leave their jobs in the next three to six months. This means that attracting and retaining talent has never been more difficult yet more important for companies.

While it might seem simple to mention “flexible work” options in a job listing to attract new talent or get employees to stick around, if not followed through in a genuine and holistic way, these policies will soon be exposed for what they are: “flex-washing”.

Holger Reisinger is the senior vice president of Jabra.

The opinions expressed in Fortune.com commentary pieces are solely the views of their authors and do not reflect the opinions and beliefs of Fortune.

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