Corporate flexibility wasn’t just an asset for company success during Covid. It was essential if they wanted to survive the pandemic.
The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) noted that 43% of smaller companies leaned toward adaptability to make it through the crisis. In many cases, their willingness to shift gears rapidly paid off more than expected. Story after story has hit the media of business teams that reinvented their purpose and made more money during 2020 and early 2021. And it was all because they embraced flexibility.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce has also written about the value of adaptability amid turbulent economic moments. For example, resourcefulness played a crucial role in one article discussing the traits most likely to lead companies to post-coronavirus success.
What makes being flexible so essential for businesses facing hardships—or just wanting to remain competitive? A significant reason is that most stakeholders like to see widespread corporate flexibility, especially buyers and workers.
Why Consumers and Employees Appreciate Flexibility From Companies
From the consumer and employee standpoint, flexible companies offer several major advantages. Let’s look at the customer angle first, though.
Shoppers have become more finicky than ever. Consumer sentiment even fell away from favored brands. In study after study, McKinsey researchers have found that up to 40% of customers are moving away from brand loyalty. This leaves them open to purchasing from forward-thinking businesses ready to meet their needs at the moment. (In other words, businesses that are flexible enough to let go of what they’ve done before.)
Employees respect corporate flexibility, too, but often for personal rather than purely professional reasons. Case in point: They prefer setting down roots with employers that will help them attain a stronger work-life balance. Not surprisingly, this usually means the employer approves of remote or hybrid work where possible.
A piece from The New York Times on the Great Resignation reveals that workers aren’t just leaving positions for greener pastures. Instead, they’re leaving for more flexible, greener pastures. Rather than facing burnout by working with a rigid company, they’re seeking out companies that treat them as whole people.
These findings on the power of companywide flexibility aren’t just anecdotal, either. They’re being measured and evaluated by everyone, from journalists to social scientists. What’s clear is that business flexibility isn’t simply a nice-to-have option. Instead, it’s a need-to-have characteristic for any modern organization ready to lead the rest of the 2020s.
What Does Business Flexibility Look Like in Action?
Business flexibility isn’t a one-size-fits-most phenomenon. It’s also not limited to any single industry. Across all sectors, companies are experimenting with flexibility in novel ways.
Take the education market, for instance. Long lamented for antiquated thinking, education was brought quickly into the second decade of the 21st century by lockdowns. As students and teachers began learning and instructing from home, new methodologies and pedagogies arose. So did an obvious mind-shift toward an appreciation of flexible instruction options.
Across the board, feedback to ambitious flexibility in education proved positive. A study released by Instructure’s learning management platform Canvas showed that 81% of teachers agreed that hybrid teaching would continue. Even as students could return to classrooms and campuses, institutions began adding flexible learning choices to their curricula.
Another example of industry-specific flexibility happened in food service. For obvious reasons, many restaurants were unable to serve customers in a traditional sense. So though plenty of eateries didn’t make it into 2021, others retooled their goals and services.
Chipotle is a terrific inspiration for flexibility in action. Certainly, the national chain had the benefit of being a well-known commodity prior to Covid. Still, its competitors didn’t all post remarkably high sales growth in the second quarter of 2020, as mentioned by Nation’s Restaurant News. So what was Chipotle’s flexible secret? The fast-food eatery leveraged digitization—hard. By ramping up its digital marketing efforts and simplifying ordering online, the company crushed its competition without losing a beat.
5 Ways to Improve Business Flexibility
Examples of flexibility across sectors from education to food services show that flexibility is a must-have skill set for winning companies. Yet flexibility doesn’t happen in a C-Suite executive-driven vacuum. It doesn’t happen by chance, either. The only way to ensure the highest degree of flexibility in any business is to put strategies in place.
Below are five ways for entrepreneurs and corporate leaders to ensure their companies get and stay flexible.
1. Banish “We tried that before” excuses.
Why do so many companies hold tight to doing what they’ve always done? Quite honestly, they assume that because something worked before that it will work again. However, this type of thinking just doesn’t hold water, especially at a time when consumer behaviors have shifted.
The first step toward making flexibility corporatewide is to stop accepting excuses like, “That never worked,” or “We’ve done this the same way forever.” Employees and teams should instead be encouraged to review and refresh processes and procedures.
Will every new idea brought to the forefront be worth trying? Probably not. Nonetheless, all brainstorms can potentially lead to a wonderful “Aha!” moment. Though the story may be a bit apocryphal, most people agree that Thomas Edison failed hundreds of times when inventing his lightbulb. Failure and flexibility go hand-in-hand, though. If Edison had kept trying to do the same thing—and getting the same result—workers might be working by candlelight or gaslight.
2. Reward employees for innovation.
Some employees naturally will offer up innovative ways of changing the business. They are in the vast minority, though. More often, workers won’t bring up ideas to make their company more flexible unless they’re prompted and perhaps even remunerated.
This is why Embracer Group incentivized innovation and creativity among its employees. After an acquisition with Gearbox Entertainment, Embracer Group decided to incentivize its video game industry workers to think differently about their market. Facing the possibility of making more money if they hit performance targets through imaginative thinking, Gearbox team members know that they hold the key to success in their heads and hands.
Randy Pitchford, the founder of Gearbox, explains that in his company’s popular, demanding medium, thinking outside the box pays off. Pitchford says that after the Embracer merger, “Gearbox will have the creative space we need to develop new titles and build on existing ones. That level of freedom and flexibility is unique in the video game industry, and it’s a major reason why this merger ultimately felt natural.”
3. Evaluate core workflows regularly.
Flexibility isn’t a one-and-done experience. It’s a journey without a specific destination. As such, businesses have to keep moving ahead and reevaluating what it means to be flexible. Otherwise, what may have seemed highly flexible one year may start to be the industry norm the next. In other words, a process or workflow could begin to seem stale or run of the mill.
It’s not necessary to reevaluate processes all the time. That would take away time from running the business. However, it’s wise for leaders to check their processes at least quarterly or semi-annually. Asking, “Should we be more adaptable in some way?” is never a bad idea.
Again, this doesn’t mean that workflows need to be changed constantly. On the contrary, many will work brilliantly season after season. But it’s best to know which ones might be wilting so they can be revived sooner rather than later.
4. Monitor other companies’ flexibility.
In addition to keeping tabs on a business’s own flexibility, leaders will want to monitor both competitors’ and non-competitors flexibility. The monitoring can be done in several different ways, starting with some new-fashioned social listening.
Social listening involves paying attention to what other businesses (usually the competition) are doing and saying on social channels. Think Facebook and YouTube, but don’t overlook Twitter and TikTok. Staying on top of what’s happening in other companies can reveal significant changes they’re making.
Consider the rise of self-checkout. As NCR explains, 87% of consumers want some type of self-checkout. However, all self-checkouts are not designed the same. Some stores are experimenting with ways to make the general process more flexible. One method is by removing self-checkout kiosks to allow customers to pay using only their mobile devices. The sooner a company discovers through social listening that its top competitor has taken this type of bold step (with success), the faster it can react.
5. Measure customer feedback.
Sometimes, companies and their employers think they’re offering flexibility. But if customers don’t agree, your company should change or scrap the solution. For this reason, organizations need to keep in close contact with buyers. Whether through in-store conversations or online surveys, customer sentiment should be collected, evaluated, and appreciated.
Again, this goes back to the age-old wisdom of knowing the customer. For instance, it might seem like a major benefit to allow buyers to bypass human customer service agents by offering chatbots. What if the company’s target audience skews into the retirement-ready Baby Boomer age group? Though tech-savvy, they might prefer to speak with a person. And they certainly don’t want to wait to get served. Fifty-seven percent of Boomer consumers would shift brand loyalty if they couldn’t connect with live representatives quickly.
Spending as much time as possible finding out what customers need immediately helps drive flexible thinking. It also reduces the risk of implementing a “flexible” solution that doesn’t feel flexible to end-users.
Ultimately, business leaders don’t want to experience another recession or pandemic during their working lives. Nevertheless, anything can happen. Having a flexible infrastructure in place gives companies the ability to weather any storm.