Company Culture

What’s the future of flexible work? Choice, agency and autonomy

Alex Hillman, cofounder of coworking community Indy Hall, talks about rethinking the workplace in a post-pre-pandemic world.

At a Dev Night at Indy Hall's former Market Street location.

(Courtesy photo)

In March 2020, Indy Hall cofounder Alex Hillman, like so many other business owners, had to make the move to virtual work.

Except Indy Hall is a coworking community — “the one thing I spent like 15 years of my life getting really good at, and all of a sudden the governor’s like, ‘Yo, that’ll kill people,'” Hillman said. “All right, I don’t want that.”

The COVID-19 lockdowns temporarily did away with workplace flexibility (though not as temporarily as many expected). Yes, people were at home and in best-case scenarios were allowed to schedule their work around family needs. But they were essentially stuck in one room every day, relying on Zoom.

It was a nightmare for some, a dream come true for others. And, as offices and coworking spaces have opened back up over the last year and a half, that dramatic, virtually instantaneous pivot to remote work for former office workers has continued to impact the way we do our jobs.

We now have more flexibility than ever, but what does that really mean? Did the thing that seemed to spell the end of coworking spaces actually make them more relevant? And what does it mean for those who may be stuck with work setups that don’t serve their needs?

Coworking spaces were following remote work best practices before the pandemic

“I’ve often described Indy Hall as this place where people don’t need to work together, but they do,” Hillman said in an Introduced interview. “Meanwhile, there’s a world of work where people need to work together but they don’t. And maybe in the whitespace between those things, our lessons are actually really useful to a more traditional organization that’s never going to set foot inside of a coworking space.”

Coworking spaces, Hillman noted, were ahead of the curve when it came to remote work. Unlike traditional offices, the physical space of coworking spaces were never intended as places to work 9 to 5.

Pre-pandemic, most of Indy Hall’s members only visited to the hub about once per month, he said. Its members used virtual chats and video calls to keep in touch with each other the rest of the time, so they were already comfortable with tools like Zoom when they became essential for everyone else.

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Misconceptions about remote work

During the involuntary remote work period of the pandemic’s early days, a lot of misconceptions about out-of-office work rose. Debunking them has made it easier for companies to embrace more flexible work for their employees.

“Everyone’s talking about productivity, but that was not necessarily the thing that suffered during remote work,” Hillman said. “It suffered because of the pandemic, but remote work wasn’t the reason. People were stressed out, burned out, worried for their life, potentially sick or otherwise. That impacts productivity, but that’s got nothing to do with remote work.”

Workplace culture and social support, on the other hand, are things that employers miss that doesn’t automatically replicate remotely.

“I think the biggest one is the serendipity of overhearing conversations that you didn’t plan to be a part of, or bumping into somebody that turns into a relationship,” Hillman said. “I think the elements of in-person are what we think of, that serendipity, that culture.

“It’s not automatic. It takes time, effort, design, leadership, intention.”

How to offer the best of remote and IRL work?

That extra effort can have employers wanting to go back to the way things were. A more productive plan, Hillman suggested, is to offer balance. The binary idea that there is one correct way for employees to work is old-fashioned, at best.

Prioritize what works best for you, factoring in what is best for the team and how they collaborate.

“If it’s all or nothing, you’re excluding people, and it’s probably not desirable for the long haul,” he said. “I think we really think about a long game here, and how we don’t just go back to the office or stay online, but build a thing that’s better than either of them as a singular choice that could potentially carry us for the next 100 years of work. That’s the kind of forward thinking that I’m doing, and I hope that more people that are asking these questions can actually ponder.”

Watch the full video:

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