The one-size-fits-all approach to work is broken

Radical change in the way we work is needed to improve wellbeing, productivity and society, argue Lizzie Penny and Alex Hirst, founders of social enterprise Hoxby, and authors of 'Workstyle: a revolution for wellbeing, productivity and society'. 

Workstyle is a new way of working that will replace the broken, one-size-fits-all approach and allow businesses to thrive and be fully inclusive. 

Workstyle gives people the freedom to choose when and where they work rather than mandating flexible, hybrid, remote, part-time or office-based approaches. It is an individualised system - designed by the individual so their work fits around their life, not the other way round. This means working without an office or office hours, instead using a combination of carefully chosen online tools to collaborate with others.  

By opening up the world of work to groups of people who are systemically excluded by traditional working structures, this autonomous way of working will improve wellbeing, increase productivity and improve society. For example, only 53% living with disabilities work, compared with 82% of people without disabilities. Only 45% of those with mental health problems are in employment, compared to 74% of the population, and only 26% of people with autism work when 77% want to.  

Research shows that workers with more autonomy take greater pride in and are more emotionally attached to their work; work-life balance, job satisfaction, engagement, and productivity all improve; and stress, staff turnover, and exhaustion decrease. Efficiency also increases as people can choose their optimal working conditions, save time and energy by reducing commuting time, and are forced to communicate more effectively.  

Despite these findings, we found organisations weren’t working this way so in 2015, we started Hoxby to demonstrate that this can be the digital-age replacement of the traditional 9-5 system.  

Since then, we have answered briefs across marketing, creative, communications, HR and innovation for more than a hundred clients, from small businesses to large corporations in all sectors across the globe, including Unilever, Amazon, Merck, AIA, Divine Chocolate, and B-Lab. Our work shows that the workstyle method works, and we have undertaken our own research to validate why it works. 

Over three years, Hoxby scored highly for autonomy, wellbeing, and productivity. We found the relationship between the variables strongly correlated: high levels of autonomy were associated with high levels of both wellbeing and productivity. The data implies that the Hoxbies who feel most autonomous (and have lots of control over setting and respecting their workstyle), are also the happiest and most productive. When the global pandemic challenged people’s mental health like never before, wellbeing and productivity remained high, and actually increased. Workstyle helped protect Hoxbies from the negative effects.   

The research also found that it is through wellbeing that autonomy affects productivity, with the implication that productivity can be increased by improving wellbeing. Creating an autonomous working environment by setting and respecting workstyle is one of the best ways to do this.  

So, how does it work?  

For autonomous working to succeed, an organisation must evolve its ways of working in three ways: 

Evolution 1: Be digital-first. Change the assumption that work is normally done in a shared place, to the assumption that work is normally done online. At Hoxby, this means collaborating via Slack instead of across a boardroom table, brainstorming via Miro rather than using a whiteboard and Post-It notes, and sharing fun posts in #TheWaterCooler channel. 

Evolution 2: Work asynchronously. Use technology to create ways of working that fit with individual schedules rather than shared schedules. Hoxbies communicate via messages, emojis, gifs and video clips rather than face-to-face meetings, and collaborate on producing work through Google Suite at times that best suit them to be productive. 

Evolution 3: Value trust not presence. Trust people to deliver their value through their outputs rather than their presence. This fosters a sense of accountability that is necessary for autonomy to succeed. It should be role modeled by the leaders and continuously recognised and rewarded.  

Hoxby started with these principles to enable workstyle to succeed and to unlock talent that is excluded by the traditional system. As a result, Hoxby is more diverse than traditional organisations and can therefore have more collectively intelligent teams. For example, when Unilever sought a new approach for its global homecare cleaning blog, Hoxby organised a team of native-language Hoxbies around a central search engine optimisation (SEO) and content strategy. Being globally distributed meant they could produce customised articles capturing local themes and trends, ensuring authentic and compelling content across all regions. This improved data capture and SEO optimisation methods to increase site performance, user numbers and engagement, and repeat visits increased by 7.1% year-on-year.  

We continue to learn from projects and deepen our understanding of autonomous working, to improve future projects and share with clients who want to move their organisations or teams to an autonomous future of work.  

We hope to inspire countless others through our book and collectively create a workstyle revolution.  

Workstyle: a revolution for wellbeing, productivity and society  

Further reading

Hybrid working

CIPD Flex From 1st

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