Opportunities (and challenges) of the 'flipped workplace'

Future Work/Life #27

In 2004, MIT graduate Salman Khan had just graduated from his MBA class at Harvard when he agreed to remotely tutor his young cousin, who was struggling with her high school maths work. Pretty quickly word got out in the family that Sal was offering free sessions, and before too long, he no longer had the spare time to do them one-on-one. On their suggestion, he started recording sessions on to YouTube, meaning they could view them at their leisure.

Fast forward to 2009, and the Khan Academy was founded, with a mission to provide a free, world‑class education for anyone, anywhere.’

While the Khan Academy may not have been the first example of ‘flipped education’, it was possibly the example that brought the phrase into public consciousness. It led to a slew of innovation in the space, much of which applied the principle that students are more engaged when they can control the pace of their learning when studying at home (whether using video, reading or other media) and then spending their time in class on problem-solving and discussion (led by the teacher as a facilitator and coach).

Among the greatest success stories of these online learning businesses is General Assembly. As one of their early hires, my latest podcast guest, Allison Baum Gates, developed an implicit understanding of how technology can support a more personalised approach to education.

It shouldn’t be a huge surprise, therefore, that in her current role as General Partner of SemperVirens, an early-stage venture capital fund focused on the future of work, she quickly recognised the opportunities presented by a ‘flipped workplace’. 

I’ve written repeatedly about the value of working in a flexible but structured way, as individuals and teams. The ‘flipped workplace’ model offers precisely this vision of how organisations can leverage the benefits of both individual, focused time, and assembling for collaboration and spontaneity.

Here’s Allison’s explanation of the concept:

Productive individual work is done outside of the office, on your own time, in your own place, at your own pace. Consequently, the office transforms into a space purely dedicated to meeting people, asking questions, brainstorming, and making unexpected connections. Liberated from enforcement of time-based productivity, managers don’t need to be babysitters. Instead they are coaches, enablers, and facilitators focused on unlocking each employee’s unique value to the entire organization.

A flipped workplace is better for both employers and employees because it optimizes for productivity, not presence. A universally accepted flexibility of structure makes true diversity possible by accommodating the varying styles, strengths, and constraints of employees. Balancing remote work with in-person collaboration ensures cultural cohesion, creating an environment of momentum and trust when in the office. Plus, the ability to work independently provides a clear reason for tracking accountability by quantifying outcomes — a process which may otherwise feel overbearing to employees.

On the podcast, we discuss the various merits of this approach but also touch on the challenges that this way of working presents as we move into a new era of work. 

While for those jobs in which there are clear performance metrics – such as measuring the number of sales calls, tracking the delivery of code, or achieving marketing campaign KPIs – it’s relatively easy to adopt a performance-led strategy, the difficulty lies in those businesses and roles in which the ‘deliverables’ are less obvious and tangible.

Much is written about the slow death of ‘presenteeism’ at work, but many of the organisations I speak to don’t have a clear framework to judge the effectiveness of work in general and remote work in particular. Once we’re on the other side of this pandemic, therefore, there’s a risk that unless we establish meaningful ways of measuring employees short, medium and long-term progress, companies may revert to “what they know” - a primarily office-based workforce. 

Since the benefits of a ‘flipped workplace’ are manifold - from improved productivity and profitability to better mental health and happiness - it’s imperative that businesses with the ambition of offering genuinely flexible work for their staff focus on defining outcome-led metrics and reassessing job design.

By the way, this isn’t something you’ll do just once; it needs to be part of a test-and-learn strategy that you iterate and adapt to individual circumstances and changing dynamics within the organisation and the market more broadly.

As Allison, explains in her article, A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Permanently Flipped Workplace, there’s no ‘magic formula’, but typically most successful plans include a clear understanding of the following:

WORKFLOW

Workflow is defined as the physical allocation of time and space, and the corresponding processes for production. It is the most urgent need, and this part of the plan provides the most relevant answers that employees need to feel somewhat in control of their lives again. 

CULTURE

Culture is the framework that directs workflow. It is defined as a set of institutionalized priorities that facilitate efficient decision-making at the executive, team, and individual level. Unlike Part 1, cultural participation is non-negotiable and should be 100% consistent across all teams.

COMPENSATION

Different behavior requires different incentives. Adjusting compensation strategy is an effective means of rewarding and reinforcing a new workflow and culture. This piece of the plan will take longer to implement, but it is essential for long-term success.

I’ll be writing more on these themes in the coming weeks but, in the meantime, check out the podcast on which we discuss the future of work, diversity in the world of venture capital, and workforce tech.

Ollie

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