Now is the time to implement the flipped workplace at scale

Turn it all around.
Turn it all around.
Image: Reuters/Sukree Sukplang
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I am sitting in my office struggling to stay focused, wondering why I need to be here right now.  The feeling reminds me of grade school, where I spent most of my class time staring out the window, yearning for the bell to ring so the real learning could begin. As a student who actually read the textbook at home, in class I typically found I could tune out my teachers and dial up the daydreams. When considering the construct of the educational and professional worlds, I have always wondered, “Does it really have to be this way?” The answer is no.

When it comes to designing the future of work, we are at a crossroads. On one hand, with unemployment at multi-decade lows and the gig economy creating opportunities for up to 75 million Americans, the time has finally come where a lot of us can choose to spend our time however we want to. Consequently, 93% of CEOs recognize they need to change their strategy for attracting and retaining talent.

On the other hand, we are all operating under the constant threat of artificial intelligence potentially automating up to 47% of US jobs in the next 10 to 20 years. Therefore, it is more important than ever that we facilitate and enable the growth of human creativity.

After the New York Times, Science Magazine, and Khan Academy popularized the concept 10 years ago, the “flipped classroom” has liberated countless students from classroom boredom by reversing the traditional method of instruction. Instead of listening to lectures in class and doing homework at home, flipped learners watch lectures and read at home and then use class time to ask questions and practice applying their learning. Teachers are no longer instructors; they are coaches. Peers are no longer distractions, but collaborators. Students are no longer treated as machines, but as humans, free to learn at their own pace, through active learning and more in accordance with their learning styles.

The same breakthrough that revolutionized the classroom should also be applied to the office—I call it the flipped workplace

The world has changed significantly since the development of modern offices, which have origins in medieval times but were popularized in post-industrial society as people moved from factory to knowledge work. The world of work has changed even faster in the last 10 years since the introduction of the iPhone and the BYOD movement—87% of companies now rely on their employees to work from their personal devices. Nearly every consumer experience has become highly personalized … so why hasn’t our work? If we can consume anything on our own terms, why can’t we also produce on our own terms?

In the modern office, our presence is required for a certain number of hours. Though we are expected to be productive, the average worker is only productive for 2 hours 53 minutes of an eight-hour day, which is largely a result of juggling individual tasks with unexpected, unnecessary meetings and other distractions. The building blocks of innovation—meeting new people, asking questions, brainstorming—are nearly impossible to accomplish in the office, so they get pushed to the fringes.

A flipped workplace turns this on its head. Productive individual work is done outside of the office, on your own time, in your own place, at your own pace. Consequently, the office transforms into a space purely dedicated to meeting people, asking questions, brainstorming, and making unexpected connections. Liberated from enforcement of time-based productivity, managers don’t need to be babysitters. Instead they are coaches, enablers, and facilitators focused on unlocking each employee’s unique value to the entire organization.

A flipped workplace is better for both employers and employees because it optimizes for productivity, not presence. A universally accepted flexibility of structure makes true diversity possible by accommodating the varying styles, strengths, and constraints of employees. Balancing remote work with in-person collaboration ensures cultural cohesion, creating an environment of momentum and trust when in the office. Plus, the ability to work independently provides a clear reason for tracking accountability by quantifying outcomes—a process which may otherwise feel overbearing to employees.

An advantage in recruiting and retention

Exactly when, how, and to what extent you can flip your workplace will depend on you, your business, and your company’s culture, but there are some critical components to building a competitive flipped workplace. Choosing the right digital productivity and communication tools, along with clearly established rules of engagement for them, is essential. So is choosing the right performance indicators and metrics-driven review systems. The quality of physical space is also important (think bright, open, desirable spaces that are designed to facilitate both deliberate and random collaboration in the workplace).

While some companies have selectively allowed ad hoc “flexible” work arrangements for certain teams or individuals, the flipped workplace will only reach its full potential when applied uniformly across entire organizations. Companies like Automattic and Auth0 are among the rare pioneers in this space, able to foster innovation while preserving the ability of employees to work anywhere, any time. But for every successful implementation, there are countless others like Yahoo, IBM, and Aetna, which suffered PR blows after trending in the opposite direction due to lack of consistent implementation.

Eventually, employees will demand a universally flipped workplace, or vote with their feet and choose employers that have already implemented the model. My hope is that by increasing awareness and putting a name to the concept, we can proactively build a future of work that amplifies our humanity, instead of dampening it.

Allison Baum is a venture investor in the future of work with Trinity Ventures. Previously, she co-founded a global seed fund called Fresco Capital, where she made 70 investments across edtech, the future of work, and digital healthcare.