Flexibility Is Key to Integrating Meaning and Work

Reading Time: 6 min 



Our expert columnists offer opinion and analysis on important issues facing modern businesses and managers.
More in this series

Our shared experience of the COVID-19 pandemic created an opportunity to question a lot of things. We revisited long-held assumptions, picked up new habits, and let go of past ways of being. Over the past two years, my team and I have led a series of workshops and seminars where we asked people to talk about what they have learned about themselves.

One of our driving questions: What is important to you now?

For some, the pandemic kick-started an urge to change their working identity — how they describe themselves. For example, some said they have started side hustles to experiment with creating the small businesses they’ve always dreamed of. Others said they have gained clarity on how to advance in their work lives: “I want to become a coach in two years’ time, so I need to build the experience and skills that will help me to do that,” said one participant.

Others have identified what they deeply care about. “My parents are getting older, and although they don’t need my care now, I want to spend time with them while I still can,” said one person. Time away from the norms of office work brought home to others just how important friendship is: “I realized that I’ve let my connections with my two closest friends get weaker, and I want to fix that.”

And for still others, what has emerged is a stronger sense of purpose: “I want to make a difference by supporting people with HIV,” said one person. “I want to support young people by mentoring them,” said another.

Personal insights about what is most deeply important to us help us to navigate the choices we face. When those choices are blocked, we can feel anxiety and loneliness. When they can be fulfilled, we have a greater sense of meaning. While much of this is a personal journey, employers still play an important role. Helping employees navigate these issues isn’t just a nice thing to do: Giving employees the flexibility they desire is becoming crucial to reducing stress and building confidence in the organization. U.S. government statistics found that even before the pandemic, the simple flexibility of changing one’s schedule increased the likelihood of job satisfaction by 60%. A 2022 survey by Atlassian of 1,710 knowledge workers across the U.S. and Australia found that 36% who had no flexibility around their work location reported symptoms of burnout, compared with 14% of those who had at least some flexibility. And while 47% of those with no flexibility had a positive outlook on the organization’s culture, fully 83% of employees who were given some flexibility had a positive outlook. Helping employees embrace their lives outside the workplace is becoming table stakes for workplace satisfaction.

The Employer’s Role in Encouraging Meaning

For sure, taking action on what is important to us starts with each one of us individually. We all have an element of personal agency and some responsibility to ourselves to hold tight to the important aspects of our lives. Yet that doesn’t mean that the organization is without a role.

There is much that organizations can do to help people with their visions for a fuller life.

But helping employees live out their visions for a fuller life is not about corporate purpose statements or one-size-fits-all policies. The breadth of what people say is important to them shows just how complex human needs are. These needs cannot be easily fitted into gender or generational stereotypes: Caring for elderly parents is something that both men and women want to do, and paying attention to the drive to turn a hobby into a business is just as likely to be significant to a 25-year-old as a 60-year-old.

Organizations can support the wishes, passions, and needs of their people through a variety of policies and practices, both formal and informal. Here are three ideas to consider.

Just get out of the way. Take spending more time with elderly parents or creating a side hustle as examples. It could be that the company can run classes on how to support elderly people or offer business plan tutorials to budding entrepreneurs. Both would indeed be helpful, but fundamentally, what is more helpful to fulfilling these wishes is time — not simply any block of time, but rather time that an individual has discretion over. When we have discretionary time, we have the chance to visit our family at a time that suits them, not just when it suits us (or our company). When we have discretionary time, we can tell our entrepreneurial colleagues in advance when we can schedule a meeting with them. Intervening to support people to pursue what is important to them has its place — but getting out of their way and giving them discretionary time to do it their own way can be more valuable.

Allow jobs to be shaped. Consider the person who said she wanted to support young people by mentoring them. Most companies are full of younger employees who would love to be mentored and listened to. So here, the opportunity is to enable people to craft their jobs to have both tasks and time that allow them to move forward on this important work — be it mentoring others or learning new skills. In some companies, there may already be organizational resources, such as training programs, that would really make a difference in helping someone pursue what is important to them.

Connect the like-minded. It is possible that some like-minded people within your company have already bumped into each other in supportive and engaging encounters. But there will be many who have not — people who might share similar ideas about what gives their lives a sense of purpose. That’s where an organization’s capacity to create networks can really play a role. Many companies have intranets that connect people for collaborative work. Some have gone further to provide virtual communities or other platforms where people can swap ideas, share experiences, and look for resources, or they have built face-to-face communities where people can engage in purposeful ways. These communities of interest could align with the organization’s interests. One example is a major bank that made a corporate decision to help end preventable blindness in the countries in which it operates. Some of the bank’s employees were already passionate about engaging on this mission — and for many others, it awakened a new interest.

From an organizational perspective, offering the types of flexibility and opportunity I’ve described can be complex. For the employee, it demands a new mindset that shifts their thinking to the long term, calls upon personal agency, and embraces negotiation as a necessary talent. For the manager, it requires new sets of managerial skills (managing time and work) and new digital capabilities (such as using scheduling software). It also requires a mindset that is comfortable allowing people to have more control over their work time and workplace. It fundamentally moves the needle from an old employer-employee model of parent-child to a more mature one: adult-adult.

This is a good time to remind ourselves that while corporate purpose statements may have a signaling value, the opportunities to embrace purpose are so much richer. It’s fundamentally more valuable when employees can engage with what is important to them using the discretionary time they have, their capacity to shape their jobs, and their willingness to make new connections. Smart employers are seeing this and welcoming it.



Our expert columnists offer opinion and analysis on important issues facing modern businesses and managers.
More in this series

More Like This

Add a comment

You must to post a comment.

First time here? Sign up for a free account: Comment on articles and get access to many more articles.

Comment (1)
Jennifer Wan
Thank you for sharing such a great post. I firmly believe that strong workplaces support staff members in pursuing their passions and discovering their individual purposes.