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By Erica Sweeney
While the pandemic made remote work a necessity for millions of Americans, it was already the norm for Sarah Dutile. She’s worked from home since 2013, soon after getting married and learning that her husband, Mike, an Army Ranger, was being transferred from Massachusetts to Georgia.
“We moved multiple times, and I kept my job the whole time,” says Dutile, who worked for EMC Corp. at the time and was one of few remote employees. When the company was acquired by Dell Technologies in 2016, she says it was a blessing. “Dell had this huge emphasis on remote work and work-life balance … which was not something I had previously,” she says. Dell launched its flexible work program in 2009 to give employees the flexibility to choose how and when they work. Even before the pandemic, 64 percent of the company’s team members were remote.
Flexible work has benefited the Dutiles in many ways. It’s often tough for military spouses to work because of the frequent moves, but Dutile has been able to keep her job and advance her career. In 2019, Mike retired from the Army and joined Dell as well, working in business operations. Now living near Dell’s office in Hopkinton, Massachusetts, both have continued working remotely through the pandemic, which has given them the chance to spend more time with their two sons, ages 1 and 3, without worrying about sticking to a 9-to-5 schedule.
“As working parents, it’s so hard to figure out how you’re going to split time between working and family,” says Dutile, whose role is in talent acquisition operations. Having a flexible schedule allows her to address personal and work priorities on her own time. “As long as you’re getting your job done, you don’t need to be clocking in at specified hours,” she says.
Offering flexibility is crucial for companies at a time when Americans are quitting their jobs in droves. More than 30 percent of people working remotely because of the pandemic say they would find a new job if they had to go back to the office full time, and 51 percent prefer a hybrid work setup where they can divide their time between in-office and remote, according to a recent study by global staffing firm Robert Half. Yet, not all companies are continuing remote work.
Companies can benefit from offering flexibility at work
“People aren’t opting out of the workforce; they’re opting for a better fit,” says Todd Rose, co-founder and president of the think tank Populace. The pandemic has inspired people to rethink their priorities and relationship with work and many are “fed up with being cogs,” he adds. The desire for flexibility is a key part of that. In a recent report, Populace found that workplace flexibility was a top priority for employees, behind compensation but ahead of benefits.
Still, according to research and advisory company Forrester, 30 percent of companies expect a full return-to-office post-pandemic. Others will embrace a hybrid model, letting employees work however they want some days of the week but mandating in-office hours on others. Rose says many organizations are still requiring in-office work out of habit. “That’s the way we’ve always done it — that’s what I hear over and over,” he says. Many CEOs also believe that employees are more productive in the office, despite the successful outcomes of the past nearly two years, and that everyone will want to work in person again once they feel safe to do so.
Dell plans to re-open its offices in January 2022 for anyone who wants or needs to work on-site. But, returning to the office isn’t required, and anyone can continue working remotely. According to Rose, giving the employees the option is critical, and the companies that prioritize flexibility will have an advantage. Specifically, they’ll more easily attract new employees, retain existing ones, and broaden their talent pool. But, a flexible work policy isn’t “one-size-fits-all,” he adds. Company leaders need to have conversations with their employees about what they want to get it right.
Flexibility lets employees balance work with personal priorities
Courtney Hughes, who lives in Austin, Texas, and works in executive and internal communications at Dell, has worked remotely since 2015 when her daughter was born. As a single mom, having a flexible schedule enables her to care for her child, who has special needs, and attend her medical appointments. “It works for me having to take care of her and also work at the same time,” she says. “I need to be able to ask questions to advocate for her.”
Sometimes that means working odd hours. But, Hughes says as long as she gets her work done, when she does it doesn’t matter. The Dutiles agree. The company’s flexible work program creates an outcome-based culture, where employees at all levels are invited to reimagine work not as a place and time, but by their results. That means employees like the Hughes and the Dutiles can thrive at their jobs and meet their needs outside work, too.
The Dutiles both have full-time work weeks, but day-to-day work is “not always the 9-to-5 or an eight-hour block of time,” Mike says. Sarah adds that if they had to work traditional schedules, they wouldn’t have as much time with their children. “That, to me, is so important, and I can’t imagine not having that balance,” she says.
Working remotely also gives Dell employees time to explore their passions. For Hughes, that’s voiceover and commercial acting, modeling, and blogging. “Our jobs and professions are only parts of us,” she says. “There are so many other things that make us who we are. Working remote provides you that flexibility to do that.”
In addition to his role at Dell, Mike Dutile is also in the Army Reserves and an ROTC instructor at a local university. “That’s the great thing about remote work — I feel like it’s given me a long leash to be able to do both,” he says.
Flexibility promotes employee well-being, and when people are happy, they’re more productive, creative, and stay with their jobs longer, Rose finds. The pandemic has shown how productive employees can be when they’re given more freedom — and many aren’t willing to give that up.
Hughes says that’s why continuing to allow flexibility post-pandemic matters for employees. “It’s about living life the way you need to — the way you want to — to be completely happy,” she adds. “The priorities people had before the pandemic aren’t probably necessarily in that same order now. But they still want to work and give their best selves and provide great ideas and drive outcomes. They just don’t necessarily want to do it in person.”
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The key to building a resilient business? A strong remote team
With its Connected Workplace program, Dell Technologies invested in its virtual workforce. 10 years later, they’re leading the way in remote work.