Workplace Flexibility

How flexible are you? And going forward, will you remain flexible?

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Rob Macdonald, Head of Strategic Advisory Services, Fundhouse
Rob Macdonald, Head of Strategic Advisory Services, Fundhouse

Column by Rob Macdonald

Rob Macdonald has held several senior positions in the investment industry. At Fundhouse, he acts as a consultant and coach to financial advisors and develops and facilitates training programmes in behavioural coaching and practice management. Before joining the financial services industry, Macdonald was MBA director at the UCT Graduate School of Business. He is co-author of the book Rethinking Leadership and has consulted, written and spoken widely on a range of topics. Macdonald has a Master’s degree in Management Studies from Oxford University and is a CFP® Professional.


In a recent LinkedIn post, Martin Lindstrom, a global leader on organisational and brand transformation, poses the following conundrum about two hypothetical companies:

One company says, “Everyone is back in the office all the time – five days a week. I expect you to show up at 8am and stay for the day.” Another company says, “You know what? We’re going to provide flexibility to our workforce. There might be certain days when we decide that we’re all going to come together because we want to collaborate in person, but other days, you can work from wherever you want. You can work from home. If you want to come into the office, you can, but you’re not required to. You’re going to have flexibility.” Now, which company do you think is a more attractive place to work? My guess is that the answer is fairly obvious.

Apple’s softened stance on flexibility was still not enough for many employees. In an open letter, 1 400 of Apple’s 165 000 workers objected to the policy, saying, “Stop treating us like school kids who need to be told when to be where, and what homework to do.”

Think of your financial planning business. Which company are you? How much flexibility do you offer your employees? And very importantly, how much flexibility do your employees want? Since the start of the pandemic, different companies globally have had different approaches to workplace flexibility, and of course the nature of the business has an influence on how much flexibility is possible.

In the technology sector, Twitter and Facebook implemented policies at the start of the pandemic that allowed employees to opt to work from home permanently. Apple, in contrast, has been pushing for a return to the workplace for all employees. Its initial return to office policy for employees was that they all had to be back in the office on Mondays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Now Apple has softened this position, requiring employees to be at the office on Tuesdays and Thursdays and giving them the flexibility to choose their third day back in the office.

Apple’s softened stance on flexibility was still not enough for many employees. In an open letter, 1 400 of Apple’s 165 000 workers objected to the policy, saying, “Stop treating us like school kids who need to be told when to be where, and what homework to do.” One employee who felt this way was Director of Machine Learning, Ian Goodfellow, who resigned in protest at the return-to-work policy, stating: “I believe strongly that more flexibility would have been the best policy for my team.” (Quoted by Zoe Schiffler on Twitter.)

In the next 12 months, PWC predicts that one in five employees will switch to a new employer and that almost 50% of employees want to be able to choose where they work.

Goodfellow was no ordinary employee. He previously worked for Google where he developed a system enabling Google Maps to automatically transcribe addresses from photos taken by street view cars. His work in artificial neural networks and deep learning have won him many accolades. In 2017, he was one of MIT Technology Review’s 35 Innovators under 35 and in 2019 he was included in Foreign Policy publication’s list of 100 Global Thinkers. After only two years at Apple, it’s no surprise that he has joined a company that offers greater flexibility, his former employer, Google.

And this is not an isolated incident. The recent 2022 PWC Global Workplace Hopes and Fears Survey indicates that the Big Resignation is a reality. In the next 12 months, PWC predicts that one in five employees will switch to a new employer and that almost 50% of employees want to be able to choose where they work.

During the Covid pandemic, professional financial planning businesses successfully delivered their services to clients despite at times extreme lockdowns. Employees worked remotely, flexibly and most importantly productively. While there may be a yearning for more in-person interaction from many clients and employees, a desire for greater workplace flexibility is also real. The dilemma going forward is whether to remain flexible or not. The answer may lie with the employees you don’t want to lose, as Apple found out.