By Alex Furman, co-founder and head of talent operations at Invitae
While progress has been made around workplace flexibility, it’s still a hot-button issue. Many baby boomers are notorious for valuing the traditional Monday through Friday in-office worker. This is natural because people want control and reassurance — if I can’t see you, how do I know you’re doing what you’re supposed to be doing? However, this mindset can be limiting when recruiting top talent, especially in competitive hiring markets and when attracting mid- and early-career employees.
It is well-known that as companies grow, they can become stifling. But this doesn’t have to be the case. Half of my company’s workforce is remote, spread throughout the country and even the world. We made a conscious decision early on to build a distributed organization, making the necessary investments in things like video conferencing along the way.
As an entrepreneur, it’s important to be forward-thinking about the kind of culture you want to create and recognize that your decisions will set the tone for your future success. We bet right that it would be a competitive advantage -; innovation requires creativity and inspiration that can’t always be planned during the 9-to-5 when you’re on the clock.
While flexible work policies help overcome geographic limitations and ensure the most qualified people are in the right jobs, I think it does something even more powerful. Flexibility supports productivity -; enhanced productivity -; and can motivate and instill employee goodwill toward their company. This is increasingly important today. When people feel trusted, the vast majority will instinctively lean toward justifying that trust. I believe that the opposite is also true -; the more you treat your coworkers like children, the worse they’ll behave.
Maintaining, let alone growing in, your career when you have young children is challenging. That’s why offering a flexible work policy is tremendously valuable for young parents. It creates a culture where parents don’t stall out and high performers aren’t needlessly set back. Half of our workforce (at all levels in the organization) is made up of women, who are typically underrepresented in STEM and tech, and we attribute our high retention rate in part to the flexibility we offer. To date, every single one of them has returned after parental leave, a rate unheard of in our industry.
Giving up control sounds daunting, but there are a number of things that can help ensure success. Take, for example, our mission of making actionable genetic information accessible and affordable. Our business is highly complex and rapidly changing; for the types of problems we’re solving, there is no innovation without a high degree of collaboration across the company. At face value, offering a flexible workplace may seem counteractive to an organization that thrives on collaboration, but we find with the right approach, it helps facilitate our success.
It all starts with trust, transparency and mutual accountability.
Ours is a mission-driven company and we assume people have the best intentions. The relationship between employee and employer is changing; people don’t want to be told what to do -; they value freedom and want agency and fulfillment. Micromanagement is motivating to no one. Instead, invest in creating an environment of transparency. Our reliance on transparent decision-making and shared operating metrics allows teams to organize around the issues of the day. This is what gives us the ability to relinquish control.
Embrace your tolerance for risk.
Business leaders, especially entrepreneurs, need a healthy tolerance for risk. Employee flexibility should be no different. Issues will arise, but be mindful of the impulse to overreact to isolated issues caused by one or two bad actors and resist the (sometimes strong) urge to impose collective punishment. Deal with issues on a case-by-case basis and keep an open mind.
Make communication and honesty a priority.
Make sure that you’re on the same page when it comes to strategy and that everyone on the team has a high degree of context about how their work fits into the big picture. But beyond this, value directness as a cornerstone of true teamwork. This helps to ensure you’re all connected and steering in the same direction, that problems are addressed as they arise, and there are never any “elephants in the room.”
More flexibility and less direct control can be uncomfortable at first. Over the years, though, we’ve found that trusting our teams to do the right thing is tremendously powerful. Teams of empowered individuals operating in an environment of mutual trust and transparency can do things of which other organizations are constitutionally incapable. I have found that they are also much more motivated and engaged along the way, which creates a virtuous cycle. By trusting your teammates, you’re actually making them better, which in return makes it easier to trust month by month, quarter by quarter, year by year.
Alex Furman is co-founder and head of talent operations at Invitae.