Half Dome's work flexibility experiment - and what worked

Lisa Lie
By Lisa Lie | 2 December 2021
Lisa Lie

By Lisa Lie, Head of People and Culture, Half Dome

The world turned on its head in 2020, and what was important to people changed forever. We’ve continually asked ourselves: “What are we doing to keep the people we want?” and asked our team “What’s important for you to be happy at work?”

The resounding answer - Flexibility.

And it’s backed up by data. According to LinkedIn’s latest Workforce Confidence survey, flexibility was the fastest-rising job priority this year – even more than salary. It’s not a perk, it’s what’s truly important to people.

As an industry, we’re all working through ideas around flexibility practices, figuring out what’s important for our teams, our clients, and our businesses. I’m sharing our approach because I believe there’s no perfect answer, but a willingness to try new things and experiment is key.

This year we decided to run a flexibility experiment, and track a heap of hypotheses – would our team feel happier, have more energy, and would we be able to retain them for longer? Would our clients feel a positive impact? From the get-go, we were clear on what success looked like.

The experiment included breaking existing work habits, meeting-free days, condensed working week options and core working hours.

Here’s some of what we learned along the way.

We can’t or we choose not to
Any change is hard, so we chose to address real and perceived barriers to the flex experiment head on and early.

As a team we worked through risks and made plans to mitigate them. This enabled a shift in perceptions, habits, and a real desire to see the experiment succeed.

Instead of ‘we can’t do that’ our conversations changed to ‘how could we make that work’, and ‘what do we choose to move forward with or leave behind’.

Skin in the game
Setting the direction and then providing space for the team to co-create and provide feedback on continuous improvement was key to success.

What did this look like in practice? Throughout the experiment there were regular surveys on success indicators, feedback requests and a fortnightly share with team leads on what was working and what we could improve.

This meant that every single person in the team was invested in making flex work for themselves and others.

When we say flexibility, we’re really talking about trust
When I ask people from other industries what flexibility looks like to them, I’m often confronted with a belief that only senior people have really earned the trust to make flexible working work.

Wow. Would you actually hire someone with the underlying belief that you can’t trust them?

We trusted our entire team to get the work done when and where they preferred, as long as they met deadlines and expectations.

Work is something we do, it’s not a place we go to
We’ll tell our grandkids stories about that time we all used to get up and travel to a place and sit in a room together at the same time to ‘work’.

Throughout the experiment we reminded ourselves of why we actually come together into a physical space and why that space is needed – and not the other way around.

We focused on outcomes and then determined how best to collaborate or learn to deliver on those. Once the type of work was determined then it was easy to decide where and how it might be done (real or virtual world, collaboratively or independently).

Get the foundations right first
Throughout the experiment we learnt that improving internal processes allowed us to streamline and work with greater levels of flexibility.

In the past, we all faced that Monday morning view of a calendar stacked with meetings. How can you flex when there’s literally no free time in your day?

Having a meeting-free day each week allowed for more focused work time and meant people had to become more discerning on whether a meeting was required, or an email/phone call would do the trick.

We dialed up the focus and expectations on what a good meeting looked like. Meetings became punchier, people were more prepared, and there were clear outcomes and actions. Read – meetings became more enjoyable.

The meeting-free day felt like one of the hardest things to pull off at the start but had the greatest impact on the quality of work and flexibility.

So, did the experiment actually work?
Our attrition rate dropped from 23% in Q1 to 9% in Q2 and Q3.
Our happiness scores increased quarter on quarter – even during extended lockdowns.
Our client relationships became partnerships.

What next?
We’ll continue experimenting with what we’re calling Everyday Flex. We believe in trust-based working and know we can provide flexibility that suits people to deliver.

This includes:

  • A remote first approach and coming together for face-to-face collaboration at least once a fortnight: to socialise, learn from each other and think creatively.
  • Our office will be converted to a hub for work that needs to be done in sync with others. The Half Dome Hub is a space to collaborate, celebrate, onboard new starters, brainstorm, kick-off projects, learn things, and meet with our clients.
  • We’re testing the theory that we only need around 50% of the workday to be effective in our roles. There’s a dedicated time zone for sync-based work (think meetings and collaboration activities) with the remaining hours focused on autonomous work.
  • For consistency and maintaining energy levels throughout the week we’ll continue a weekly meeting free day in 2022.
  • Our team can design their week - both where and when. As long as they’re available in sync hours and deliver great work for our clients.

The key to introducing a flexible work environment is to have an open mind. Test, learn, seek feedback and keep experimenting. Recognise the importance and value placed on flexibility and what it actually means to people – trust.


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