“For the first time many workers are actually enjoying some version of work-life balance. It isn’t just an aspirational concept that is out of realistic reach” said Rekha Skantharaja, president and chief executive at Tangram Insurance just outside of San Francisco.
“Some are experiencing burnout because access to work is now 24/7, but largely, the opportunity exists to re-structure the day based on the workers’ terms.”
Tangram clearly has a leader who wants employees to bring their authentic, full selves to work and sees the location of that work as an enabler to achieve that. Not surprisingly, many people feel most at home with themselves when they are, well, at home.
“It’s unquestionable that the balance between work and life feels more in our control than ever before,” said Skantharaja.
“We are going through a revolution in work culture right now.”
Tangram allows working at home for three days a week, which gives people the flexibility to pursue other priorities.
“Parents can take their kids to sports, people can step out for mid-day fitness class or get together with a friend for an early happy hour drink,” said Skantharaja.
Efficiencies can be improved both at home and at work through this flexibility. It might make much more sense to pop down to the hardware store at 9am on a weekday when it is less crowded to do an errand quickly than try to fit it in later in the day when you may be having meetings with customers or colleagues in different time zones.
Sure, it would depend on your time zone and on the hours at your local hardware store, but the point is that the workers themselves decide the most practical option and organise their day accordingly.
“Today the most important thing to hire for, nurture and encourage, is trust and accountability,” said Skantharaja.
“If you truly believe in your people, you know they will get the job done and be motivated by freedom and flexibility.”
Which is not to say that office work is bad.
Skantharaja explained that there is benefit in coming together as a work community, even on a limited basis, which is why she prefers hybrid working to full time work from home.
“Ideas are traded in real time, energy is felt in the room when problems are being solved, a conversation is overheard, and someone learns something,” she said.
“Those are things that can’t be replicated in pixels.”
While one size will never fit all, a hybrid approach works across a multi-generational and multi-ethnic workforce such as the one at Tangram. About 50% of Tangram’s workforce is under 40, and about 80% under 50. It has 40% minorities, and 60% women.
“Our executive team is also 100% women, and we are all mothers of young children,” she explained. “That lens makes a difference when we are contemplating company policies.”
Hybrid work as a majority aspiration is backed up in large scale surveys of employees such at the PwC Global Workforce Hopes & Fears Survey 2022.
The survey showed that of the 54% of people who were able to work at home, 63% preferred a mix of in-person and at-home working. Only 11% preferred exclusively working at the office, while 26% wanted to work at home every day.
Insurance firms typify these global trends.
“Most companies in the insurance industry have adopted a hybrid schedule for their workforce, like it or not they realize that companies must adapt or lose talent” said Skantharaja.
The key question that employers and employees need to address when being asked to come into the office again is, what is the benefit to the employee?
“Workers must see a clear advantage to commuting and being in community with their colleagues,” she said. “We have moved beyond simply showing up and sitting down. Time is precious and time in the office must matter.”
No-one wants to go through the stress of a commute only to find themselves in a less productive situation. Skantharaja outlines several ways this can be avoided, including making sure that managers are present, team meetings are held when people are physically present, and that firms invest in technology which makes virtual participation smooth and seamless.
At the same time, the number of virtual meetings needs to drop from the frequencies common during the pandemic years when workers and companies were trying to replicate office levels of connection.
She also recommends a few opportunities for the entire company to get together annually.
“The investment will pay dividends in building culture and connection,” she said.
There are some aspects of office work that are problematic. Fidelity claims and employment practices liability have become issues again as more workers returned to the office bringing more misappropriation of company property or higher levels of sexual harassment, for example.
Skantharaja said that she has heard anecdotally of some companies where women or minorities especially benefitted from work at home as they could avoid micro aggressions, sexual harassment or feeling different or isolated due to race.
“We are fortunate as a female led organization, [with a] majority of leadership being women, and a gender balanced/diverse team – bullying, sexual harassment, toxic masculinity, and sexism have not invaded our culture,” she said.
Such issues frequently link to mental health, another area that must be taken seriously in the modern working environment.
While the world can do with less harassment and aggression, Skantharaja struggles to think of anything good lost by the demise of traditional 9-to-5 office work.
“If anything, much has been gained,” she said.