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The business case for flexible working

Host Ryan Anderson could not wait to share this episode with you. Our guest, Cali Williams Yost, has spent her career helping organizations reimagine not just where, but also how and when their people work to improve performance and well-being. With a mix of infectious enthusiasm and the truth-bomb directness of someone who has been advocating for these shifts for 27 years, Cali makes a strong business case for embracing flexible work and remaking the office into an intentional enabler of a more flexible operating model. For more ways to help your organization with these shifts, visit https://www.linkedin.com/pulse/designing-better-tomorrow-millerknoll/.


Speaker 1 (00:06):

Looking Forward: Conversations about the Future of Work, brought to you by MillerKnoll.

Ryan (00:19):

Hey listeners. Today we talk with Cali Williams Yost, CEO and founder of Flex+Strategy Group. Cali’s sole focused for the last 27 years has been on helping organizations to work more flexibly. As you can imagine, her deep expertise in this arena is very relevant for any organization trying to support more flexible working. But it’s particularly helpful, at this point in time, when so many organizations have decided to adopt a hybrid workplace strategy, but just can’t seem to make much progress in terms of actually working differently beyond simply setting new HR policies. In this episode, we dive into the topic quickly addressing how to make flexible work, really work. And I think you’ll find it’s an excellent episode to share with anyone tasked with supporting new, more flexible ways of working. Enjoy this conversation with Cali Williams Yost.

Ryan (01:05):

Hey Cali. Welcome to the podcast.

Cali Williams Yost (01:07):

Hi Ryan. It’s great to be here.

Ryan (01:08):

Well, I’m thrilled. You’re here and I want to dive into a variety of topics because I know your knowledge is so relevant to what so many organizations need right now, but first let’s start with you and what you do.

Cali Williams Yost (01:18):

So I am a workplace flexibility strategist and for the past 20… I did the math before I came on today. For the past 27 years, Ryan.

Ryan (01:30):


Cali Williams Yost (01:32):

I know I have worked with visionary leaders to help them reimagine how, when and where their organizations are operating. We help them execute, what we call, high performance flexibility. So that is a flexible, intentional way of operating across workplaces, spaces and time to achieve high performance and wellbeing. So that’s what I do and have been doing for a very long time.

Ryan (01:59):

Yeah. 27 years. The good news is I’m guessing your market has massively expanded. The bad news is you’re probably dealing with a million people who are just coming to this topic now and feel like they’re experts.

Cali Williams Yost (02:10):

Yeah. It’s funny. I feel very grateful that I have all of this experience to offer to the conversation. There is a level of frustration, because I get concerned we’re reinventing the wheel on a lot of things. There are a lot of things we know that sometimes I hear a lot of, oh, it’s an arrangement. Well actually it’s not. So that’s where you have to say, okay, certain people are going to have to come into this discussion at the beginning, but others are willing and able to say, look, how can we jump ahead and avoid some of the mistakes that people have already made so that we can take this to the next level. And those tend to be the people I work with and it’s really fun to work with them. And we’re having a good time.

Ryan (03:03):

Well, I could imagine for you, it’s probably a little bit like Groundhog Day, when people try to go after the same solutions or the same conversations. The good news is you’ve got the experience to be able to help fast forward if people are open to that. But I imagine it’s also probably challenging sometimes to come to a conversation and say, oh, I’ve heard this before, we’re going to have to move past it.

Cali Williams Yost (03:24):

I appreciate that they want to try to solve the problem, truly. And it is so, again, almost gratifying for so many years to talk about this and have people almost blank stare you. Like I don’t, I’m not even sure what you’re talking about. I don’t get… And we were lucky, we’d still find that group of visionary leaders who could see the flexible future work coming and say, okay, we got to do this differently. So let’s just, us over here, take this to the next level. And if everybody else doesn’t get it, that’s their problem. But now that so many people understand, wait, we aren’t going to go back to the way we worked before. What does this look like? And even if they’re grappling in the early stage understanding, it’s much more exciting for us to at least have the openness that there needs to be a re imagining versus before there was just this kind of…

Cali Williams Yost (04:21):

Now that being said, which is interesting, Ryan, leaders did know that things were changing before the pandemic. And one of my favorite pieces of research to reference is a 2018 study conducted by Harvard of 6,500 senior leaders from across the globe about the flexible or not, the future of work factors that they saw coming at them. There were 14 of them. And the top short term factor they saw as being impactful to their business is the expectation of work life flexibility. And that’s in 2018. 6500 senior leaders. Then they asked them, okay, so how prepared are you to address this factor? And that was number 13. So there was a huge gap before the pandemic, in terms of recognizing they needed to rethink the way work was being done and taking action. And that was, in my opinion, due to a combination of fear inertia and not knowing how to do it. And then the pandemic hits and that just blows through all that fear, all that inertia. And you just had to do it.

Ryan (05:33):


Cali Williams Yost (05:33):

So now we’re coming to the other side and this is where the next level challenge is. What’s next?

Ryan (05:41):

Well, I think most of us saw the lack of preparedness of organizations to really go do it, even if there was a pre pandemic awareness of it. And I know that the pandemic forced many organizations to support work differently. I think many probably believe that whatever they’ve got now is flexible hybrid working, but you’ve seen this deployed in a much more considered fashion. So how would you assess the state that most organizations are working in today?

Cali Williams Yost (06:09):

So I would say it ranges between denial that there is a permanent change in the way work is being done in this hopeful sense that we’ll go back. We’re just this… Okay. Yes. We’ve worked fundamentally differently for two and a half years, but ultimately let’s just go back. Then there’s this, okay, yep, it’s different, let’s move forward. We’re going to execute a new model. And then there’s this in between, I say it’s about 60% that rests somewhere in between where they’re like, okay, we know we’re not going back to the way we do things before, but we’re really not sure what this next thing is going to look like. And so they’re in this liminal space between where we’ve been for the past two and a half years, where we’re going and how do you navigate that transition is where I think a lot of people are. They’re fumbling.

Cali Williams Yost (07:04):

And I think there’s this, hey, let’s put a policy in place that says everybody’s going to come back this number of days a week. Or then there’s the, we’re not going to do anything, we’re just going to let everybody figure it out. You tell us what you want. And then we’ll just give it to you. Which is two sides of the continuum. And at some point there is going to have to be a step back to say, all right, this is really a fundamental rethink of how, when and where we operate our organizations. And that’s got to be driven from the top down through every level. It requires aligning leadership around a shared vision of what this looks like.

Cali Williams Yost (07:51):

And there has to be a really clear powerful why behind it. Just can’t be a people strategy, because as we hit this recession, this is where that danger hits, which is, oh, now we don’t need people quite as badly. So we don’t need to be flexible. It’s, actually, then you’re not going to get the benefits of being able to be flexible maybe in the time that people work. And you’re losing all the benefits of then helping you manage through this recession using flexibility. So then you’ve got to think through, what are the guardrails in terms of, based of the work that you want to get done, not just the tasks of the job, the culture you want, all of those broader strategic objectives that you’re going to want to achieve. How, when and where do you do that best? And that’s not going to be one size fits all across your organization. So then you’ve got to train your people to then work within those parameters. There’s a whole multistage approach that you have to follow that right now, I just don’t see a lot of organizations executing.

Ryan (08:52):

Yeah. I want to pick up on a few things you just mentioned. One of which I think is that policy alone, isn’t going to make this happen, is it? I know a lot of organizations have gotten there and you illustrated the spectrum of it. But for those HR leaders that might be feeling like, okay, we created a policy. It probably goes without saying that that in and of itself can’t necessarily teach people new ways of doing things. Can it?

Cali Williams Yost (09:15):

So here’s the way I like to describe the limits of flexible work policy. Before the pandemic, I would say there were probably few organizations that didn’t have flexible work arrangement policies on their books. A policy that said you can remote work, a policy that said you can reduce your hours, a policy that said you can shift your time. A policy… All those policies were there. The pandemic hit, they weren’t ready. Because policy alone, to your point, it’s almost like great, now what? Those policies, pre pandemic, were policies that were trying to allow flexibility around the traditional work model. But because they weren’t operationalized, they just stood over here. And then when really push came to shove and you needed to recalibrate how you were working rapidly, when the pandemic hit, people didn’t know what to do. Those policies did not affect the operating model.

Cali Williams Yost (10:14):

The same thing goes now. You have Apple. Okay, people are coming in Tuesdays and Thursdays and then teams can decide the other days they’re coming in. Okay, great. Now what? What’s happening on those days when we’re in Tuesdays and Thursdays, how do we pick that other day? What work are we doing during those days? What work are we not doing the days we’re in the off… It goes on and on and on in terms of, okay, great, that’s one parameter, but then all these other things have to be considered for that to then be enabled.

Cali Williams Yost (10:48):

There’s another policy I recently saw where it was much more broad. It’s like, hey, within teams you can decide which functions can work flexibly. Okay. I go back to my, okay then what? So how do we figure that out? What is the consistent approach? How do we make sure that we’re being clear about what’s happening when most effectively. Again, the policy is only going to get you so far before you say, okay, great. So what are we doing? And then how, when and where are we doing that within that policy? And that’s where it’s falling short.

Ryan (11:20):

Well, we definitely want to dive on what it looks like to operationalize this, but before we do, I want to hint it. One other thing you mentioned in terms of the labor market. I do think there’s a subset of those that have embraced flexible working or hybrid strategies that’s doing so as a concession to employees. And it’s just viewed as like, okay, fine. Which illustrates that they might not actually see the benefits of flexible working for their organization. So before we get to the operationalizing it, couldn’t say that there. Can we just pause for a moment and talk about the benefits? Because if an organization’s going to be committed to it, what do you think are the organizational upsides?

Cali Williams Yost (11:58):

You ready, Ryan? Because I’m going to rip through them now.

Ryan (12:01):

I love it.

Cali Williams Yost (12:01):

One after another. Okay. So people strategy, 100%. Okay. Let’s just lock, load on that right now. Okay. Hiring and retaining people today is a three-legged stool. It’s flexibility, compensation, and opportunity. And I put those in no particular order. Sometimes it’s compensation, sometimes it’s opportunity, it’s a three-legged stool. You have to give people flexibility that makes sense for their job. I find people are very rational about… I find very few people request or expect to be able to work flexibly in a way that just makes zero sense for the job they do. Right there. People strategy. Yes.

Cali Williams Yost (12:48):

All right. So then let’s go to the other things. And I have seen this firsthand and there is research to back this up. Okay. So the things I’m getting ready to tell you. When you execute a flexible work strategy with thoughtful intention, now I’m going into thoughtful intention. And even I’m going to say in the pandemic, there’s been research that said even the crisis driven flexibility did have these impacts. But specifically when there’s intentional execution of a flexible way of operating across workplaces, spaces and time. What you will get is an increase in productivity, truly. Because what happens is people are able to match what they are trying to do to how, when and where they do it best.

Cali Williams Yost (13:31):

So in other words, I’m doing a real deep thinking piece. I’m sitting in my house. I didn’t commute. I’m not being interrupted. I’m doing this thinking work and I’m being more productive with that. I’m having a brainstorming meeting. I’m going into the office. I’m sitting around with my team. We are cracking through this thing and then we’re going home. Okay. That is the… I am now having to be intentional about how I use technology. Which goes to another benefit, which is people adopt technology more effectively when they have to be thoughtful about how, when and where they are working. Teams are more intentional and collaborative with each other. You optimize your workspace, which I shouldn’t have to tell you.

Cali Williams Yost (14:18):

All of these things, people are more innovative about how they’re doing things. They start to question processes and how could we do this better? And what does this look like? All the things that you as an organization would want they are doing because they have to be more thoughtful about what it is they’re getting done and how, when and where they are doing it. Again. I’m saying this in the context of the strategy that has been executed so people know how to do that individually and as part of a team.

Cali Williams Yost (14:48):

And then the second to last impact is operational resilience. We saw that firsthand, my clients that had done all this hard work pre pandemic, I’m telling you, it was like a 15 minute switchover in their server. And one guy sends me his email with just the subject line, nothing else, seamless. Now this was a bigger department within a bigger organization. And the broader organization had not done the same level of work that this department had done. And other departments were coming to them and saying, oh my God, we have got to… What did you do? So you are able to recalibrate more quickly and intentionally when realities change.

Cali Williams Yost (15:29):

And then I’m going to go to my final one, which is ESG. And we don’t talk about this enough, but for senior leaders of publicly traded companies, you are increasingly being evaluated on ESG metrics by your investors. And yes, environmental has taken the primary focus of those metrics from investors. But increasingly it’s going to be the S part of that and how you’re treating your people. And this is a much bigger conversation, but there is a push amongst investors to have more human centric metrics being evaluated within organizations. And all of them, whether it’s your ability to attract and retain your talent, compensation, DEI, are directly impacted by flexibility. So again, all of this good stuff you are able to achieve, if you begin to see flexibility as a core strategy for your organization and not just something that sits over here that you put out in your PR and hashtag it, and the whole thing. It’s really how, when and where your organization can operate in an optimal way.

Ryan (16:39):

That was an excellent overview. And I wrote this down, because I’m completely stealing this and quoting you on this. A crisis driven approach versus a thoughtfully executed approach to flexibility, for me, summarizes the state of things really well.

Ryan (16:56):

Hey friends, we’ll get back to our episode in just a moment, but first I want to take this opportunity to let you know that Looking Forward is part of SURROUND, a podcast network curated by SANDOW Design Group. SURROUND brings together some of the best architecture and design driven audio content available. So if you like what you hear from us, visit surroundpodcasts.com and check out some of the other great shows on the network.

Ryan (17:19):

So for that organization that says it’s time to thoughtfully execute and we have to operationalize this. And I know this is your whole career and we can’t fully break this down in a short podcast, but what does this look like? How do you begin?

Cali Williams Yost (17:31):

So first and foremost, the top leadership of the organization has to understand and be able to say, we need to do things differently. And I am encouraged that I think more, very, very senior leadership of organizations understand it’s really then the next levels down. You really have to do some work to get the next level of leadership on board and understanding what this is and why we’re doing it. Then what you need to do is you need to train teams in a consistent process to be able to think through, what is it that we need to do. You have to start with the what and not the where, and that’s the problem. Right now, we’re all starting with the where, and that’s why it’s not working because people are arguing, but I’ve been doing all this not here.

Cali Williams Yost (18:26):

I know hybrid is the word. I think hybrid’s a problem. I think hybrid keeps us stuck in the where. And because it’s not just about work from home or work in the office, there are many where’s, the lead has to be the what. And that’s why I think we should talk about this as flexibility and not hybrid. Because it’s really flexibility in how, when and where we work. And when we talk about hybrid, we leave out a vast percentage of the population of our organizations. Because 44% of employees can’t do their jobs remotely. So when we talk about hybrid, you’re really talking about a very specific group of people.

Cali Williams Yost (19:00):

But anyway, so then you have to start though with what do we need to do? What is the work? Then based on the work, you determine how, when and where you are going to do that work. You set the parameters up because if you think about it, COVID actually destroyed, finally destroyed, a traditional work model that was already disappearing, a place based work model. And you almost have to reconstruct it for your group, for your team in a way that works for your business. So this is what’s different on the other side of all this, it’s not going to be the same for everybody. The process can be the same, but what that ultimately looks like, it’s going to be different, that how, when and where. Then you’ve got to train people to work within that structure.

Cali Williams Yost (19:46):

Flexibility, working in a high performing flexible way is a set of skills. Managers need to know how to manage a flexible work team. Teams need to know how to coordinate with each other in an intentional, flexible way. And individuals need to know how to capture that flexibility and fit their work and life together in a way that works for them, but also for the business. That’s a whole set of skills. And so, right now, what I’m seeing is okay, return to office. Can you see all of those things that are not happening when you do that? And you wonder why it’s not working. You don’t have leadership on the same page as to what this is. You’re approaching it as a where, not leading with what, you are not approaching it from a consistent process that helps people think through then the how, when and the where for their teams in a way that works for them. And you’re not training people. So that’s the difference.

Ryan (20:37):

Well, so it sounds like that message, particularly from top leadership, but throughout, needs to shift from the where to let’s reevaluate the work, almost to the point of a given team, if I’m hearing you right, saying, okay, for this particular thing we do, how should it happen? What tool should we use? When should it happen? And where is a consideration. But it’s not…

Cali Williams Yost (20:57):

100%. And this is… I’m so glad you brought this up. Because people were like, oh so you don’t think people need to come into the office. I didn’t say that. Actually, I think the office plays a really important role, even maybe more so than it did before. It is an enabler of the work. It is an intentional enabler of that flexible operating model that you have intentionally thought through and are now executing. And so you have to design that workplace and space to support what it is you’re trying to achieve.

Cali Williams Yost (21:34):

So for example, I think, before, when we’ve spoken, I told you about my client who really was using this opportunity to reintroduce all of the workspaces, to the people that worked for them. Because honestly they had done some workspace redesigned before the pandemic and they found people didn’t often use the spaces that they had created for them. So now people have cut the cord to their desks. People get that they’re not going to have their own desk now. They do. Okay. That was so hard before the pandemic, you do these office redesigns and people become like, where’s my desk? It’s like, okay. Now they know they don’t necessarily have their own desk.

Cali Williams Yost (22:15):

So you get to say, we created these collaboration spaces. We created these. Use the cafeteria. The cafeteria is not necessarily where we just go to eat. You can go and have a meeting there. You can go and sit in this couch area and just work with your team. You’re not locked into one area. Although, people do seem to neighborhoods. This is your team’s neighborhood. You may have people sitting there when you’re not all there, but you could also ask people to sit with you, who you would work with. So space matters, but it’s part of a broader execution model. It’s, along with technology along with time. How do we use that in a coordinated way to achieve what we have set out to achieve? That is really where we’re going.

Ryan (23:11):

Yeah. I’ve heard organizations that are farther along this journey talk about their various types of spaces, corporate work spaces, but also homework spaces, as key tools in the same way they might talk about Slack or another technology platform. It’s all about what equips you to go do the work the way you think it’s best done.

Cali Williams Yost (23:28):

One of the things I also think is important is to make sure that we’re also talking about how we’re interacting with our customers. I’m hearing that more and more from leaders is this recognition, that business development, and when we’re meeting with our customers and where we’re meeting with our customers is also really important as well. So it’s this other dimension that’s being thought about creatively too.

Ryan (23:57):

Yeah, no, we’ve worked with social scientists over the years. And it might be a crude reference, but one thing that I sometimes think about is long distance relationships. And they can survive and endure actually, but it feels like when trust is being built or restored, if it’s broken, getting together, seeing eye to eye, spending a meal together. There’s some similar parallels, particularly on the customer engagement side. Can you interact with customers virtually? Sure. But then there’s these key moments and maybe that’s part of the conversation for a team who does a lot of customer facing work to identify.

Cali Williams Yost (24:30):

Absolutely. Absolutely. So again, it’s space just in general and places. I think this is a creative moment and an exciting moment to optimize them as best we can.

Ryan (24:45):

I’m just so intrigued with this idea that teams are equipped or empowered to go reconsider the way they do work. Because I’ve complained about it, I think, on the podcast before, but the sheer number of people that are stuck in endless video meetings, because it feels like they’re trying to recreate everything that was just done in person on video, seems to me to be such a hindrance to people’s actual flexibility. That, it’s just one example. But I’m curious if you were to sit down with a team leader who might say, hey, I’m ready to start doing this differently. What kind of coaching you might give? Because I would imagine this takes some trial and error along the way.

Cali Williams Yost (25:23):

And as with any change, we always say, you want to have your initial model that you think is going to work and it’s not just something the manager comes up with. Okay. You can take a first pass, for sure, but then get your team involved. This is where all this quiet quitting and all this lack of engagement, which by the way was a problem before the pandemic, but we’re now seeing it on steroids on the other side. Engage your people in the process of saying, all right, based upon what we do, how do you think, how when and where, do you think we do this best? What does this look like to you? Here’s my ideas, but what do you guys think? You’re not always going to get exactly what you want and people are going to have to compromise, but at least people will feel they’re invested. And now experimenting with this next of work.

Cali Williams Yost (26:11):

People are very thoughtful and can say, why are we having these meetings on Zoom in real time? We could probably do this work independently and just utilize some of the technology we have. But this work over here, that actually is better if we’re together. And so when we know we have to do this type of work, we’re going to just agree we’re going to plan to be together and do it in person. This work we’re going to post it on Teams, post it on any other platform and we’ll do it, but we will put norms around that as well.

Cali Williams Yost (26:45):

That’s another thing I found is that the utilization and coordination of technology is a mess right now. And so there does have to be even some structure around how we agree to use technology and what that looks like. But when you get that in place, experiment for three months, do an actual pilot. And on the other side, you’ll see what works and you’ll see what still needs to be improved. And you’ll just keep learning and iterating as you go along. But have everybody work together to figure this out. That’s really where the magic is.

Ryan (27:21):

Well, it’s a pretty transformative thing to say to a team we’re going to rethink how we do this with those questions. Because I have to believe that a lot of people either have never thought about it or have never felt equipped or empowered to go think about it. So even if you don’t get it right for the first three months or six months, having a workforce that’s actively trying to reevaluate how the work is done to be better at, it feels to me, like a really important high value transformational activity.

Cali Williams Yost (27:49):

So 27 years. Why do I keep doing it? Why do I still love it? And I’m sure you can hear it in my voice. I truly love what I do. And that is because of the spark. I always come back to the spark. When I see people start to engage in this process and to see what it unlocks for them, not only in terms of how they’re more engaged in their jobs, but then how they’re able to fit the other parts of their life into their work and do it in a way that works for the business and works for them. It’s really cool to watch. And my hope is, for organizations that seem to be stuck in this endless loop of onsite, remote onsite, remote onsite, they break that by saying, all right, let’s just step back. And let’s just rethink this whole thing.

Cali Williams Yost (28:40):

Okay. We have great lessons we’ve learned over the past two and a half years. The whole thing has not been a bust. There were some things we did figure out. But then there are things that are missing and we have to be able to talk about that with each other, without everybody just freaking out and saying, oh, I don’t want to go back. No, let’s be honest with each other and say, maybe there are some things, it’s better when we’re together. And then figure out what that new next looks like. Organization benefits, people can benefit, but it takes work. See, that’s the thing. Everybody wants it to be, hey, give me a 60 minute webinar and let’s just put a PDF together and let’s just… Doesn’t work like that. And that’s the resistances, oh man, you got to put some effort into it. Yeah. But there’s a return and it is worth it.

Ryan (29:27):

Yeah. And I think organizations, at least the ones I talked to, have now realized this is not something you just tuck under a return to office policy. It is going to take a bunch of work, but I think you’ve broken it down for us, not only in a way that helps to know where to start, but actually your enthusiasm about seeking that spark is contagious. So you’ve gotten me… You’ve given me a renewed energy and optimism about this. Just how well this could go.

Cali Williams Yost (29:56):

I’m so glad, Ryan. That was my goal today. And I just… Can you imagine if everybody starts doing this? How positive something that right now can feel very negative can become? And that’s what I hope.

Ryan (30:08):

I don’t know if there’s a better way we can end the podcast. I am not being cliche when I say I could keep you here for another hour or five unpacking this, but I think you’ve given us a tremendous set of principles and clarity based on your 27 years of experience.

Cali Williams Yost (30:25):

I keep saying that.

Ryan (30:25):

I know I love it. And hey, what a privilege is for us. And I should acknowledge that I was fortunate enough to meet you because of your past work with our friends at Knoll. So I love that we’ve been engaged and that we had the chance to feature you on the podcast. I will be following your work moving forward. And I’m just thankful that there’s people like you that have this kind of experience that can help us navigate a rather ambiguous future. Thank you so much, Cali. We appreciate you joining us.


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Ryan Anderson

Ryan Anderson is one of the contract furniture industry’s leading voices exploring how changes in technology, design, and management practices are reshaping work.

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