The University aims for inclusive excellence in all of its operations and the employment experience it provides. Flexwork – a time-tested approach to variations on how, where, and when work is performed – contributes to Harvard’s excellence by enabling employees to perform consistently at the highest levels. Within a campus-based community, some roles and functions will always require physical presence and standard hours. But many others can use flexwork principles and practices to work together efficiently and effectively within their teams to meet the University’s academic and business objectives.
These guidelines, first produced in 2017, have gone through several iterations to keep them current with the needs of the University and its employees. Now, as we enter a new phase of resuming some familiar practices and experimenting with new ones, Harvard will use flexwork as a dynamic tool both to discover and invent the workplace of the future. These guidelines elaborate on a long-standing practice of flexwork at Harvard, and name emerging questions that will only be resolved over time. These include concerns about maintaining the spontaneous interactions between mission-driven people and teams, savings and costs associated with a redesign of office space and occupancy, distribution and provisioning of resources, and the interests of the individual employee in the context of the needs of the collective. Considerations of these concerns require a change mindset, a sense of personal responsibility, and a tolerance of a future that has yet to come into focus.
I. Policy and Principles
Harvard’s flexwork policy states that the University provides options and procedures for flexwork. It further states that no staff shall be excluded from proposing flexwork regarding the times and places where their essential duties are performed, that all staff shall have access to an equitable process by which flexwork proposals are considered, and that proposals shall not be unreasonably denied. Final approval is at the discretion of management.
Flexwork at Harvard is guided by six principles:
- The process is equitable.
- Decisions are without bias or favoritism.
- Flexwork is job appropriate.
- Flexwork has a net-neutral or net-positive effect.
- Flexwork is responsive.
- Approved flexwork arrangements should be documented.
II. Flexwork Frameworks and Definitions
Flexwork is a term that captures variations in where, when and how work gets done. Schools, departments, and units should decide which flexwork frameworks will best serve their local business needs and are the best fit for the nature of their work, while also addressing University goals of sustainability; diversity, belonging and inclusion; and employee wellbeing. Please check with your local unit or school for its approach to flexwork. Specific terms are defined here.
III. Making it Work, Measuring Success
Flexwork has long been a part of Harvard’s workforce strategy. As remote and partially remote work (also called “hybrid”) practices have become mainstream due to the COVID-19 pandemic, flexwork — always guided by the nature and the needs of the work — is now further and permanently integrated into the University’s approach.
Within the framework set by a school, department, or unit, employees can propose variations. All employees can make a proposal, which must be written. Managers are required to review all proposals. Managers and employees alike should not focus unduly on the reason for the request, but rather on how the request might be met in a "net-neutral" fashion as regards the work requirements. The final decision lies with the manager, who may deny proposals based on business reasons. Denials should be documented. Managers are encouraged to consult with their local Human Resources (HR) office before denying a request. Employees are free to propose adjusted or new arrangements. All approved flexwork arrangements must be documented.
Both employees and managers should particularly note that when health issues emerge in the context of a conversation about flexibility, HR and University Disability Resources (UDR) should immediately be consulted.
Successful flexwork requires individuals and groups to address such basics as technology and equipment, information security, ergonomic considerations, employee wellbeing, non-Harvard work – including dependent-care – while teleworking, and work location.
- Communication: Communication planning within and between teams is at the core of all successful flexwork arrangements. A high-quality communications plan will include considerations of which University or school-approved technologies and tools will be used. It will also address: accessibility/inclusivity, formal and informal communications, expectations of team members and mutual accountability, evaluating communications success, and guarding against the signaling of constant work.
- Managing Teams: At its core, managing team performance is about setting expectations and measuring performance outcomes in relation to these expectations, but empowering and managing hybrid teams does require some extra insight. Tools and resources are available to help managers with this skillset.
- Measuring Success: Flexwork is successful when teams manage productivity by setting goals and timetables and defining deliverables clearly. Managers and employees should consider whether the quantity, quality, and timeliness of work has been maintained, enhanced, or diminished. They should also consider how the flexwork arrangement has affected stakeholders, whether the arrangement has encumbered or streamlined processes, and whether flexwork has led to new opportunities or helped meet the University’s overarching goals.
- Trial Periods and Reviews: Trial periods of 30 days are recommended for new arrangements. All arrangements should be reviewed at least annually.
Approved flexwork arrangements must be documented. A single form allows for two kinds of documentation. Part A is required for all employees. (If an equivalent document is used, it must contain all of the same information). It should be submitted to and held by both the local manager and the department’s HR representative. It should be entered into PeopleSoft, when this feature becomes available. Part B is optional. It allows for a more thorough exploration of how, where and when work will get done and provides managers and employees with tools for thought and conversation.
V. Tools and Resources
Tools and resources for both managers and employees are available. A summary of tools and resources is provided here.
The University aims for inclusive excellence in its operations and the employment experience it provides. Flexwork contributes to this excellence by providing the potential for employees to perform consistently at the highest levels, work together efficiently and effectively within their teams to meet the University’s academic and business objectives, rise together to the challenges facing the contemporary workforce, and remain nimble during periods of disruption. 2020 was a transformational year for flexwork at the University where the majority of employees shifted to remote work.
These flexwork guidelines, first produced in 2017, have gone through several iterations to keep them current with the needs of the University and its employees. Now, as we enter a new phase of resuming some familiar practices and experimenting with new ones, Harvard will use flexwork as a dynamic tool both to discover and invent the workplace of the future. The guidelines elaborate on a long-standing practice of flexwork at Harvard, and name emerging questions that will only be resolved over time. These include concerns about maintaining the spontaneous interactions between mission-driven people and teams, savings and costs associated with a redesign of office space and occupancy, and the interests of the individual employee in the context of the needs of the collective. Considerations of these concerns require a change mindset, a sense of personal responsibility, and a tolerance of a future that has yet to come into focus.
Within a campus-based community such as Harvard, physical presence will always be required for certain roles — and for most roles at certain times. A University is a people-based enterprise and interpersonal relationships will always need to be fostered actively, whether through in-person and on-campus interactions or through creative and intentional remote activities.
With this in mind, as the University prepares for a return to campus for many of those who haven’t been required to work onsite in the past year, Harvard intends to maintain access to expanded flexwork options, including telework, remote work, and approaches that combine on-campus presence and telework, also known as “hybrid” frameworks.
To successfully integrate new ways of working, leaders and managers will need to examine and re-ground themselves in their unit’s core purpose, objectives, and deliverables and — in consultation with their teams — evaluate how their work has evolved in a mostly remote world. Through this team-focused lens, leaders and managers are charged with considering available flexwork frameworks for the future and with integrating employee proposals where possible and appropriate to establish the team’s best-fit options.
These guidelines provide time-tested principles for implementing flexwork effectively and equitably, frameworks (also referred to as models) for structuring work, and shared definitions of common terms. The guidelines are not intended to be prescriptive or permanent, however: individual schools, departments and units will need to adapt them to their local circumstances. For example, while the University has authorized a return to campus on August 2, 2021, leaders will determine the dates and phases that work best for their units. Finally, acknowledging that we are once again in uncharted waters, portions of these guidelines will necessarily be iterative, subject to change as the University gains experience and sees the results of transitional and experimental flexwork efforts.
Flexible work arrangements have long been part of Harvard’s workforce practices. When implemented by schools, departments, and units as appropriate to their local business needs, flexible work becomes a strategic tool to achieve institutional goals, empower employees to do their best work, foster individual and collective wellbeing, maintain business continuity in the case of disruption, and support a diverse and inclusive work environment.
To achieve these aims, the University provides options and procedures for flexible work in accordance with its Flexible Work Guidelines. No staff shall be excluded from proposing flexible work arrangements regarding the times and places where their essential duties are performed. All staff shall have access to an equitable process by which flexible work proposals are considered and not unreasonably denied. Managers shall provide concrete feedback when they decline a proposal. Final approval is at the discretion of management.
This policy applies to non-teaching exempt and overtime-eligible staff. Bargaining unit staff should consult their collective bargaining agreement to review any flexibility provisions. If there is a conflict between the language in one of Harvard’s union contracts and these flexible work guidelines, the union contract language shall prevail. Those who seek flexible work arrangements to manage a health situation for themselves or a family member may receive additional guidance from their local HR business partner or University Disability Resources.
These principles are intended to provide a conceptual foundation for best practices and common-sense decisions. Any consideration of remote or hybrid work must first be aligned with the University’s teaching and research missions and closely coordinated with schools’ and departments’ specific needs and goals. The nature of the work should be the primary guide for when and where work is carried out, but it is also the case that other factors will necessarily have to be considered, including, for example, capacity limits on spaces. Managers and employees will benefit from sharing the burden of trade-offs to protect an effective way of working and to promote inclusive excellence and personal wellbeing throughout the University.
- The process is equitable: The ultimate decision to approve or deny a flexwork arrangement is the manager’s, often in conjunction with Human Resources (HR), and it is paramount that the process for making decisions — about when, where, and how work gets done — be equitable. As teams experiment with and adapt to long-term frameworks for flexwork, there will be situations in which employees or managers want to adjust their on-campus/hybrid/off-campus status, or their schedules, or both. The manager’s role is to set parameters, evaluate the team’s work, and prioritize what must be completed and by whom; however, it is essential that managers work with individual employees and their whole teams objectively when evaluating flexwork arrangements. Given the new reality of such widespread work from home, it is likely that personal circumstances may indeed factor into some decisions. Longer term organizational planning may play a role. Some jobs will have little to no room for alteration. Indeed, outcomes will not be the same for everyone. But the key to equity is a fair process by which flexwork proposals are assessed, and this process must be consistent and transparent.
- Decisions are without bias or favoritism: It is critical to remove personal bias from flexwork discussions and decisions. Previously, Harvard’s flexwork guidelines emphasized that the manager should not ask about an individual’s personal circumstances or base their approval or denial of a flexwork arrangement on the employee’s reason for the request. The principle of respecting an employee’s privacy and evaluating a proposal on its business merits holds true during and after the pandemic. When taking a view of the business needs first, a team approach can help integrate individual autonomy and need into decision making without compromising collective effectiveness. Managers should touch base with local HR to ensure that new arrangements make sense in the context of local policies and practices.
- Flexwork is job-appropriate: Flexwork is not suitable for every job. Historically, many types of jobs have been understood to require employees to be on-site full-time or at regularly scheduled times. Through the pandemic, however, employees and managers have found new and innovative ways to flexibly accomplish job responsibilities and determine which tasks must be accomplished on-campus, which can be done off-campus, which can be done at different times, and sometimes combining all three approaches. As more people return to their primary workplace, it is essential to integrate the lessons of the past year in a way that balances the focus of being on campus with a new perspective that much more can be performed remotely – or at non-standard times – than we may have previously thought and have recently found to have enhanced accessibility and service.
- Flexwork has a net-neutral or net-positive effect: Under optimal conditions, once approved and implemented, flexwork should have either a net-positive or net-neutral effect on business results and the work environment. In other words, the same work is getting accomplished at another time, in another place, or in another way, ideally having a positive effect. In some cases it might have a mixed effect — but one where, on balance, the arrangement does not have an overall negative impact on the team or on individual performance. At times when social infrastructures are disrupted, managers should empower employees to explore pragmatic, ad-hoc approaches to accomplishing as much as possible when working remotely and to understand what other options are available, should their arrangements become untenable (see, for example, Use of Sick Time and Dependent Care Sick Time.)
- Flexwork is responsive: Flexwork arrangements are intended to be responsive to the changing needs of the workplace and should not be considered permanent. They should be reviewed and updated both as business drivers change and, at a minimum, annually. In earlier versions of these guidelines, a trial period was strongly encouraged in advance of a manager’s approval. Now, as Harvard’s workforce transitions, experiments and adapts to new frameworks, we will be in a somewhat fluid period during which employees, teams, and managers are encouraged to have frequent and thoughtful conversations about how arrangements are working and make adjustments as needed along the way.
- Approved flexwork arrangements should be documented: All final, approved arrangements should be documented in Part A of the Flexwork Documentation Form and stored with the manager and/or HR, depending on local practices. This information should also be added to PeopleSoft, when that feature becomes available. Employees and managers are also encouraged to use Part B of the form to guide them as they discuss, agree to, and document their approach to work. These practices help set expectations and provide guidance with planning both on personal and business levels.
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Next section: Flexwork Frameworks and Definitions