July 8, 2020

Why Flexibility and Diversity Go Hand in Hand

First published by Jennifer Woollford on Linkedin on 8 July 2020

Two words we’ve heard a lot of lately.  

Flexibility has come to the fore since COVID-19 forced a rapid implementation of remote and flexible working.  Conversations quickly moved from not only the possibility, but also the potential of what it means to not have people in the office for a set number of hours that entered the mainstream a century ago, and to work in a way that works for them.

Diversity has been talked about in boardrooms for a lot longer.  McKinsey published their first “Women Matter” report in 2007, a series that has continued and evolved to analyse and report on the broader “Diversity Matters”.  The findings are increasingly clear that companies with more diverse workforces and leadership teams perform better, yet progress is slow and there remains a need to foster inclusion of diverse talent, where people can be authentic at work rather than feeling the need to conform.  

The Power of Diversity

The power in diversity is not the achievement of a quotas (although undoubtedly, they are important to drive focus and change) but in the fostering of cognitive diversity – differences in perspectives, insights, experiences and thinking styles.  Matthew Syed, in the brilliant ‘Rebel Ideas: The Power of Diverse Thinking’, paints a compelling case for cognitive diversity over intellectual conformity.  Demographic diversity is a strong starting point to realise the benefits of cognitive diversity, but the frames of reference brought to the table need to be freely spoken, listened to, and valued. 

The Value of Flexibility

When people work with greater flexibility – meaning operating outside of the archaic systems of presenteeism, fixed hours and linear career paths – it enables greater authenticity, perspective and connection with values.  As the purpose of companies evolves from purely delivering shareholder value to leading companies to meet the benefits of all stakeholders including employees and communities, people who work and build their careers in a way that enable them to be better connected and understanding of their stakeholder groups will undoubtedly bring greater diversity of thought to discussions than those who purely worked within a defined operating system.  Equally, by leading authentically they will foster a culture of inclusivity, acceptance and celebration of diverse thoughts and ideas.  Embracing flexibility throughout an organization can help to avoid a diverse group of people gravitating towards a dominant way of thinking or operating.  

Combining the Two – Where the Magic Happens

Remote working is not the same as flexible working, yet the two are often grouped together because the ability to work remotely is an important enabler of working flexibly.  There’s a risk of a giant pendulum swing when it comes to remote working.  Facebook has already said they may have half the company working permanently remotely in the next five to ten years.  That’s not just “working from home”, that’s potentially working from different cities and countries.

Humans and companies thrive on connections.  Diverse thinking is enabled by individuals coming together with different ideas.  Those ideas are nurtured, developed or improved through conversation and inspiration. Flexibility can provide different contexts through which to build those ideas . . . bringing them together with others who have alternative frames of reference is where the magic happens.  Flexibility fuels diverse points of view. Connections enable those points of view to count.  

We’ve seen that connecting remotely works to keep teams and businesses functioning.  But don’t underestimate the value of real life connection – to build trust to speak freely, to allow people from different levels in the hierarchy to talk directly, for people from different parts of the organization to have a conversation that might otherwise have never happened.  

This is a time where we need diversity more than ever as more different perspectives will drive more creative solutions.  Leaders should think about how they champion flexibility – across how they work, how people in their team want to work, and with their external resources – and how they bring people together to foster and leverage the exciting cognitive diversity this can bring.