A new book draws on eight years of experimentation with more autonomous workstyles that allow people to fit work around their lives.
Much of the talk about flexible working post-Covid has been about hybrid working – working in two different places, generally home and work, but essentially in the same way as normal. While it has its pros and cons and has made a big impact on footfall in the big urban centres at certain times in the week, it has not been as transformative as it could be. That is the thesis of a new book, Workstyle: a revolution for wellbeing, productivity and society.
Written by Lizzie Penny and Alex Hirst, co-founders of Hoxby, a global community of freelance experts, it not only charts their own experimentation with and research into new ways of working over the past eight years, but also seeks to show the impact different ways of working could have if they were adopted more broadly.
The idea is that individualised workstyles should replace the traditional one-size-fits-all approach that we have become accustomed to, but which doesn’t work for many people. They say it is about “fundamentally redefining our psychological contract with work; thinking about fitting our work around our lives rather than fitting our lives around our work…thriving through our work, not in spite of it”.
It starts by charting Penny and Hirst’s own experiences. Penny describes how in 2014 she was struggling with adapting to motherhood and the return to work, which opened her eyes to the fact that the 9-5 doesn’t work for many parents. She then became pregnant with twins who developed twin-to-twin transfusion syndrome and had to have surgery at 23 weeks to ensure both the babies survived. During the weeks that followed, Penny was confined to bed and workstyle became her escape. Out of the blue in 2020 she was diagnosed with breast cancer and, once again, work was a welcome distraction and she was able to keep working because she was able to fit her work hours around her life. She has since been adapting her workstyle in line with her children’s school hours and her health needs.
For Hirst workstyle was his response to work overload and burnout. He says it has been “revolutionary”. “Workstyle enabled us to lead a family life that gave each of us the best of each other,” he writes.
Penny and Hirst say there are many people who are effectively cast out from the workplace because their work doesn’t fit with their other needs. They point to various social and other trends: our ageing population, the global mental health crisis, technological progress and the boom in more independent working, including more portfolio style working. “All of these factors came together to create the perfect opportunity for a new, individualised system of work to be created,” they write.
Workstyle means the freedom to choose when and where you work and draws on asynchronous working [not all working at the same time], digital-first working and trust-based work environments. Wellbeing, linked to greater autonomy and choice over where and when people work and what their priorities are, is at its centre and drives productivity. Penny and Hirst acknowledge that it most easily works for knowledge-based work, but they say elements can improve work for everyone, with the onus being on early adopters to ensure that this is the case.
There are sections on wellbeing and on productivity, with a strong argument being made that, despite technological breakthroughs, productivity is flatlining. Penny and Hirst say the problem is that the way we work has not kept pace with technology. Workstyle, they argue, addresses this, given greater autonomy allows people to maximise their energy, vary their hours so they can do ‘deep work’ at the hours they are best able to focus and have time to prioritise the work-related things they do well and feel passionately about.
The book also foregrounds how workstyle can address inclusion [for instance, enabling those with caring responsibilities and health issues to work] and promote a rich collective intelligence that can help us to address the complex global challenges ahead. “Workstyle is an attitude as well as a new structural approach to work,” they write. “It is a mindset of seeing people as individuals that can help us to overcome many forms of discrimination.”
The book ends with a call to individuals to set, project and respect their own workstyle. How realistic this is in many public-facing jobs is unclear – Penny and Hirst reiterate that workstyle is more a state of mind, but there are practical issues to confront and the risk that it works for some and drives greater inequality for others. The sincerity and commitment of Penny and Hirst is clear, however. They end, saying: “In order to create positive change, we can’t sit back and wait for organisations to lead us. They won’t. Individuals within and outside those organisations need to take action. If enough people believe in the transformative power of workstyle, our collective action can change the world.”
*Workstyle is published by John Murray Learnings, price 20 pounds. More information on www.workstylerevolution.com.