No Need for the 9-5: How PwC Successfully Built a Culture of Work Flexibility

April 15, 2021

Photo of man working in backyard as his kids play nearby.

Back in 2019, 72% of talent professionals said that work flexibility would be very important to the future of recruiting and HR. COVID-19 pushed that prediction to fruition much sooner than anyone could have anticipated. Today, 73% of workers want flexible remote work options to continue after the immediate need has passed, and 70% of managers say they’re more open to flexible models for their teams than they were prepandemic. As Leena Nair, CHRO at Unilever, commented during LinkedIn’s recent Forward event on the future of work: “It would be the tragedy of our times if we didn’t reinvent the workplace in this moment.”

One company that was already well ahead of the curve when it came to work flexibility is PwC. The accountancy firm has long since embraced a culture of “everyday flexibility” that has helped it make Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For list 16 years in a row. And while PwC has invested many years building this culture, it continues to adjust and refine its approach based on employees’ evolving needs. Recently, for example, it announced that team members will be given much more control over their schedules moving forward, including the ability to decide when they start and finish work for the day. 

Anne Donovan, PwC’s former U.S. people experience leader, was with the company for 37 years and saw the shift toward everyday flexibility from its inception. 

“I like to say that when we started, we couldn’t spell the word flexibility,” Anne jokes. “We really did start from scratch. I won’t profess to say we’ve got it solved, but I think we’ve come a long, long way, and I’m proud that we started early.”

As your company starts planning what work will look like after the pandemic, here are Anne’s tips for making flexibility work for everyone.

1. Find out what employees really want and continue to evolve your policies

PwC’s move toward a culture of flexibility began around the time millennials entered the workforce.

“We were studying our generations at PwC,” Anne recalls. “What we found was that one of the top three things our Millennials wanted at work was flexibility, so it was an easy business case for us. And as we started rolling it out, all of our generations said, ‘This is fantastic.’”

Since then, flexibility has only grown more important to candidates and employees. For many, more flexibility correlates with greater loyalty to a company, with the majority of Millennials even willing to take a pay cut to find flexibility elsewhere. 

Now that countless more employees have experienced remote and flexible work as a result of the pandemic, some may be unwilling to go back to the way things were before. At the same time, others may crave the type of interactions that only an in-person workplace can provide. This makes it critical to find out what employees want and how they see it working before making any long-term decisions. Flexibility should, by nature, be optional. If you adopt a hybrid work environment, for example, the goal is to allow employees to work where they choose — even if where they choose is the office.

By understanding what your employees really want, you can also create a policy that is unique to your company. So, don’t feel pressured to do exactly what other players in your industry are doing. Let your people know you’re listening and you value their input before rolling any new options out.

2. Offer the same degree of flexibility to everyone — and let them be flexible about how they use it

Flexible work options can be especially valuable to some employees, like caregivers and parents reentering the workforce. But everyone can benefit from them, regardless of their age or circumstances.

PwC’s flexibility policies are predicated on the belief that everyone’s reasons for wanting them are equally valid. That’s why the company has been careful not to highlight any particular segment of the workforce in its messaging.

“We did not gear our program toward any specific group, and we did not find that any specific group wants it more than others,” Anne says. “Everyone wants and deserves flexibility. It’s no less important to want to participate in a softball league or to be a yoga instructor than it is to want to get home and spend the evening with your kids. Those are equal in our minds.”

Giving everyone the same options is vital if you want flexibility to become a core part of your culture. Otherwise, it can feel too exclusive, making some employees feel left out. But it’s also important to be flexible about what flexibility means. Everyone’s circumstances are a little different, so people will embrace it in different ways.

At PwC, there are no hard-and-fast rules. Employees are empowered to make flexibility work for themselves and for their teams however they see fit.

“We called our program Flexibility² and that’s our signal to remind ourselves that it has to work for both the company and the person,” Anne says. “Each individual has to work it out with their boss, and we laid that out from the beginning.”

To give their employees a sense of what flexibility means and how they can use it in their everyday work life, PwC came up with some simple programs:

The firm also made it clear that employees don’t need to be at their desk working a typical 9 to 5, Monday through Friday. Remote and telecommuting options were widely encouraged long before the pandemic made them necessary:

It’s OK to have loose policies in place, like letting your coworkers and managers know when you’re taking the afternoon off, rather than just disappearing. But being too rigid about flexibility makes it difficult for employees to adopt and embrace the new mindset. Clearly communicate the boundaries, but give people room to breathe if you expect a policy to catch on and stick.

3. Ensure trust is baked in

Before the pandemic, some companies were wary about offering flexible work options, citing concerns over productivity, communication, and collaboration. The great work-from-home experiment brought on by the pandemic has proven many of these fears to be largely unfounded, suggesting a bigger problem may be at play: a lack of trust.

At PwC, trust is paramount. No matter how flexible an employee’s schedule is or how long they’ve been with the company, managers trust them to get their work done. After all, the firm hired them for a reason.

“We don’t have the mantra that you have to be here a certain amount of time before you have flexibility or that you have to earn it,” Anne says. “You have to trust your employees from the day they walk in the door. That’s why you hired them. And you shouldn’t have to see them to trust them — if you do, that’s another issue.”

At PwC, trust means more than simply letting people work without the company peering over their shoulders. By placing its trust in all its employees, PwC also trusts that they’ll return the favor and be flexible when the company needs it.

Since business needs can fluctuate as quickly as an employee’s own circumstances, creating a culture that emphasizes mutual flexibility can be beneficial to both sides. That way, working different hours when the company needs it feels less like an unwelcome obligation and more like loyalty to an organization that invests in its people.

4. Talk about flexibility until it sticks — and make sure leaders are talking about it too

Today, flexibility isn’t just a policy at PwC. It’s a major part of the company culture that employees live and breathe every day.

Getting to that point takes time, effort, and a little trial and error. Something you can start doing right away is talking about flexibility as much as possible. If your company has been more flexible than usual during the pandemic, the seed of the idea is likely already in employees’ minds. Now you need it to nurture it to ensure it grows into something more than just words on paper.

“We started talking about it, using the terminology, and getting our leadership talking about it,” Anne says. “In an organization this big, it helps to start infusing the culture with the words, to hear leadership use the terminology, and start to get everybody comfortable with the thing we’re going to do.”

Getting leadership actively engaged in the process was a major step for PwC. Anne recalls that in the past, cultural change had typically come from the top down, so it was important for employees at all levels to be involved.

“We gave permission at the top to allow for flexibility, and then we went to the bottom and said this is your right, this is what you’re allowed to have — now go get it,” she says. “It was exciting to do it this way because what we said to our people was, now it’s on you to go make this happen.”

Get everyone talking about flexibility and participating in the program, and make sure that managers lead by example to help other employees feel comfortable working flexible hours themselves. It may feel strange at first because real and lasting cultural change takes time. Like anything else, if you do it enough, it will soon become second nature.

True flexibility can be good for employees and good for the company

LinkedIn data shows that flexibility can improve retention, morale, and work-life balance, which in turn can make employees happier and healthier. PwC is proof of this. Flexibility has had a significant impact on engagement — and it’s become a proud feather in the recruiting team’s cap.

“We’re very proud of it and talk about it in our recruiting process,” Anne says. “Our people have appreciated it so much and have been so excited about this new way of working. It certainly helped engagement.”

Now that employees have had a taste of flexibility, reverting back to the old way of doing things may not be an option. To attract and retain the talent they need in a postpandemic world, companies must be prepared to help employees fit their work around their life — not the other way around. 

“Your people want flexibility,” Anne says. “It’s on their minds. We have not found a downside.”

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