Radical flexibility: What chief people officers need to rethink for 2022

Airtable’s chief people officer on how flexibility as a benefit can help shape a company’s culture.

Johanna Jackman

Airtable CPO Johanna Jackman explains what the company's doing to support its employees.

Photo: Airtable

Johanna Jackman leads Airtable’s people functions including recruiting, operations and experiences.

As we approach the end of yet another year of working from home, unpredictability continues to be a constant, and rapid adaptability is the new expectation for most teams. According to Gartner, “radical flexibility” has become both a business mandate and an employee expectation. Just as workers are rethinking where, when and how they work, People leaders need to rethink how they deliver best-in-class experiences for employees in these new environments. As leaders begin to plan for next year’s People policies and plans, flexibility is the only way forward.

At Airtable, we’re not going back to how things used to be. Instead we’re re-imagining how to reduce burnout, restructure benefits and time-off policies and stay nimble in order to be great dance partners with our employees so they feel fulfilled and productive.

More creative ways to deal with burnout

The COVID-19 pandemic has been one of the most trying disruptions in our personal and professional lives. Remote work is adding hours to our days — what used to be a five-minute conversation or a quick pop by a desk is now often a 30-minute formal Zoom meeting. More and more, it feels like we’re living in a world where the work day doesn’t seem to end and our home and office lives are increasingly blurred.

That’s why at Airtable we implemented regular “Recharge Days" where the entire company has the day off. These Recharge Days are designed to give our employees an additional day off every quarter. Through surveys and listening sessions we learned that actually unplugging from work was only happening when everyone did so at the same time. If the entire company is unplugged, you’re less likely to face guilt or interruptions for taking that much-needed vacation.

Next, we implemented “Focus Weeks,” where everyone is encouraged to cancel recurring meetings and focus on more dense, long-term work during shorter, four-day weeks (like when there’s a public holiday or company Recharge Day). The goal of these weeks is to hit "reset," prioritize more critical tasks and focus on heads-down work without having to cut through the noise of a traditional workweek.

The majority of our employees responded to a recent survey on these newly implemented policies in an overwhelmingly positive way. 97% reported being satisfied with Recharge Days, saying they were beneficial for overall well-being, and gave them time to unplug. 90% were satisfied with Focus Weeks, saying they increased overall well-being, reduced “Zoom fatigue” and created space for more important work to get done.

Make sure your vacation policy best meets the needs of employees

Two years ago, competitive compensation was arguably the deciding factor for most job opportunities. Today, a good salary is no longer good enough. Everything is more personal now: Work and time off are intertwined in the same space, causing candidates to take a more holistic approach to job searching. Increased flexibility for the way individuals work, better life balance and additional benefits can make a big difference when it comes to retaining and attracting top talent. Along with additional Recharge Days and Focus Weeks, we’re implementing a Flexible Time Off policy. FTO encourages our employees to take better care of themselves and not feel pressured to “save up time” to take a break.

We view FTO as an investment in our team’s success and an important part of our One Team value because it emphasizes the importance of taking care of yourself and those you care about. As a startup in an advanced stage of hypergrowth — 75% of our workforce has been hired since March 2020 — we realized a lot of people weren’t taking their vacation days. So we’re providing a solution that empowers our employees to take the time they need to recharge.

Strong culture is curated. It happens with meticulous intention, not by accident.

None of this matters if we don’t lead by example and teach others how to bring these approaches to life. We know there are some concerns about the implementation of FTO and the potential for “work martyrs” to not take any vacation time. We know we have to foster a culture that allows the space for this policy to work correctly. As such, and in accordance with our company value of Growth Mindset, our managers will be encouraged to participate in classes to ensure they’re being compassionate. Executives will encourage employees to take time off — it cannot and will not be stigmatized. Additionally, our eTeam has committed to not just being transparent about when they’re taking time off, but are making a point to actively talk about how they’re spending that time away to lead by example.

We also owe it to our teams to be as transparent as possible while implementing new policies. People have proven they can withstand extreme changes and new crises if they’re included in the process and feel a sense of belonging along the way.

All of these adjustments are in response to yet another type of flexibility that we’re going to have to embrace going forward as the pandemic continues. It may be co-workers with aging parents, an employee who is more productive at home or a parent struggling with a lack of childcare due to a COVID-19 outbreak at school. It’s our job to ensure that when employees take care of their needs, they aren't met with any kind of judgment: that they have the best information about why we chose these policies so they can keep up and feel included as things continue to change.

Going forward, work will likely continue to be embedded into our homes and lives in this previously unprecedented way. As leaders, it’s incumbent upon us to give people permission to take care of themselves so they can do their best work as this state of impermanence persists.

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