Deloitte's Work Anywhere policy: true flexibility or just lip service?

Work anywhere.

That’s the message Deloitte is telling its Australian employees. It eliminated start and finish times, and removed the requirement to be in the office for a set number of days per week.

On the surface of it, this is an encouraging move, and one that should be celebrated. However, telling people they are free to do things without addressing the underlying workplace systems and cultures that actively sabotage the spirit of this move, is like giving someone the keys to a Tesla, but not access to a charger.

As the bestselling author of Atomic Habits, James Clear, puts it, “You don’t rise to the level of your goals. You fall to the level of your systems”.

You can tell people that they can work wherever, whenever, but if the typical workday is punctuated by an expectation to participate in back-to-back Zoom calls and meetings, to centralize decision-making, and to respond to hundreds of emails and instant messages a day in a hyper-responsive manner as if connected to an IV drip, then nothing much will change.

It’s a little like unlimited leave policies. They sound great in theory, but it turns out that employees often end up taking far less leave than the average two to four weeks offered by employers around the world.

Policies can be well-meaning and a step in the right direction, but without systems to reinforce the spirit of said policies, they can amount to lip service which leaves employees disgruntled, telling everyone who will listen that the policy they read about in the media is a “brand-building crock of s#*t”.

Indeed, Deloitte was already watering down what this policy actually means in its statement to the media. Deloitte employees will still need to adhere to the client’s procedures concerning start and finish times - which may be as archaic as the factory room floor.

What's in a name?

Deloitte employees and those of other large accounting and consulting firms, have for decades had employment contracts that stipulated 37.5 to 40 hours a week of work. Yet, we all know that this is rarely the reality for consultants employed by these behemoths, who are subject to what some have called ‘borderline slavery’.

The reality is as an ambitious consultant employed by a big four firm you’re going to work as hard and as long as everybody else is - even though it may not be the most efficient way to get things done.

If organizations are serious about providing their employees with genuine flexibility, then they need to address how work gets done.

Changing how we work

Moving away from the consensus-seeking that plagues decision making and action taking, towards greater employee autonomy and workflows that don’t rely on the real-time, and cognition sapping tennis matches that are email and instant messenger, goes a long way to addressing the stress-inducing problems plaguing the workplace today.

Ultimately, consultancies like Deloitte should strive to build a culture where people are empowered to harness their attention and talent to get valuable work done.

It can be easier said than done when you have clients to service, but this too needs to be addressed when kicking off new engagements.

It’s imperative to talk with clients about systems, and agree on communication methods that give employees more time to actually get stuff done, and less time wasted on unnecessary communication that keeps them from actually sitting still and focusing on a problem for longer than 20 minutes without interruption.

If we truly care about the emotional wellbeing of our people, then giving them the opportunity to work wherever and whenever is significant. As they say in psychology circles, where you choose to live, is one of the three pillars of happiness.

But changing how we work, rather than just changing what it says in our employment contracts, is key to ensuring we do more than just paying lip service to flexibility, but truly embody it.