When Werk co-founders Anna Auerbach and Annie Dean met back in 2015, they were both at turning points in their lives and careers—on opposite sides of the country.
Auerbach was living in Las Vegas and struggling to find the flexibility she needed to raise a four-month-old son. She found that she was not alone.
“Las Vegas has a lot of transplants, and I found that a lot of the women I met were struggling to find an opportunity there,” she said. According to Auerbach, many of the women she met had moved to Las Vegas for their husbands’ career opportunities and found themselves stay-at-home parents for lack of sufficiently flexible work opportunities.
On the other side of the U.S., Dean too was at a crossroads. She had been a corporate lawyer, but after the birth of her second child, she was looking to change paths. That’s when a mutual friend connected her with Auerbach.
“I took the call, and the first thing I said was, ‘How can I help you?’” Over the course of the conversation, Auerbach said she mentioned that she’d been thinking about the lack of female representation in the executive suite, coupled with what she’d been seeing in Las Vegas. It all gave her an idea about creating a company dedicated to fixing workplace inequity at the source of the problem: inflexibility.
Dean’s response, an echo of Auerbach’s opening line: “Can I help you?”
Over the course of six months, working nearly around the clock, across a time-zone difference, and amid the rigors of parenting young children, the two women joined forces to create what would become Werk, a first-of-its-kind people analytics platform that provides companies with data and recommendations to improve their flexibility performance.
Auerbach chatted with From Day One about the growing importance of workplace flexibility and how it impacts everything from diversity-and-inclusion success to employee engagement, not to mention a company’s bottom line.
Why is the demand for flexibility so high now, and why does that need seem to be growing?
If we think about when we developed the modern conceptions of work, it was pre-industrial, predominantly men, and not very diverse. Things have changed so much. The workforce has become more diverse, and I think that’s created an opportunity to find new ways to be more inclusive of our employees, not just in terms of gender and race, but also who they are, what their personalities and experiences are like, and how they work best.
The more we think about flexibility as a way to customize employee experience, the more we can think about it in terms of inclusion. There’s no question that this disproportionately affects people’s careers, particularly for diverse populations.
Can you elaborate on how that works in practice, in the way you approached diversity and inclusion?
We started with a focus on women in leadership. One of the first and more important supporters that we got was Ann-Marie Slaughter [author of Unfinished Business: Women Men Work Family]. We cold emailed her and she really helped us center ourselves. One of the things we talked about was that we, as a country, chronically undervalue caregiving and dehumanize work, and this impacts primarily women.
We’re a for-profit company, but we want to make sure we’re doing the right things for the world.
There’s been so much work done on diversity, but the challenge has been how we get that to work with inclusion. Often there’s a significant amount of flex inequity in diverse populations. Our software assess their needs, but also what type of flex they perceive they have access to and the specific modifications they’re able to do. We see significant demographic fault lines. If a company has access to a work-from-home day, you’d think everyone would have access. But we’re finding that women and people of color tend not to think they have as much access to that.
The problem with flexibility is that the onus is on the employee to ask for it. That can trigger a lot of unconscious bias. Diverse groups don’t always feel entitled to ask. At the same time, we also see deeper needs in certain populations. For example, there are people who can’t afford to live as close to the office [as others], so they have longer commutes and might benefit from a modified start time. When you think about attracting and retaining diverse populations, you really have to think about how they work best. It’s part of inclusion.
While flexibility is clearly a virtue, your company offers needed structure to make it happen, to accommodate different situations, is that right? You’ve identified some specific flexibility options, like MicroAgility and TraveLite. How do those work?
Our company started as a job board. We started thinking about how to help companies communicate the types of flexibility they offer and how people package what they do. We took a look at every type of flexibility that any company on the board had offered, and broke them down into three component parts: where you are when you’re working, when you’re working, and how set or variable those two components are. We made sure those categories didn’t overlap and then broke them each into a sub-category, giving us six flexibility types.
We’ve found people are an average of two and a half flexibility types. Usually there’s one or two that really spike and then the others are less important. In the same way you have a Myers-Briggs personality type where you can say, “I’m INFJ,” you can say my flexibility type is MicroAgility [freedom to adapt], DeskPlus [location variety]. Being really distinct about what your type is—and how you work best—really helps others work with you as well.
You produced a report that identifies a “flexibility gap.” Can you give an example of what that means or how companies are falling short?
MicroAgility is a flexibility type that lets employees step away from their work for up to three hours to accommodate unexpected obligations. Three out of four employees say that they need access to MicroAgility but don’t have it, meaning that they can’t step out for a doctor’s appointment or a parent-teacher conference, but you can’t know that unless you have the data. That is the flexibility gap: the demand for a certain type of flexibility versus the actual supply or what employees perceive they have access to.
What does Werk do that’s different from other programs and initiatives?
There’s been so much talk about workplace flexibility and a bunch of companies have tried to address it. The term has been in play since the 1970s. We’re not inventing anything new here, but what we’ve done is we’ve injected data into the conversation. We’ve done that by using behavioral science. We collect granular human data, and we use an algorithm to translate that into visual information to companies. We take information, like how you commute, and then show your company how that affects happiness, productivity, loyalty. We show how measures like offering a work-from-home day boosts metrics like employee net promoter score (eNPS), as well as employee engagement, and reduces employee turnover
And how do you turn that data into something actionable for companies?
What we provide is ultimately an analytics software, with a psychometric assessment twice a year. We create a live, interactive dashboard that updates with new information and gives information on what type of flexibility is needed, what you’re delivering on, and provides a custom action plan for execution.
We can provide an individual flexibility profile to each employee. I think all too often we’re missing the labels to explain what we need and how we work best. Flexibility-profile types help fill that gap.
Where do companies get this right and where do they get it wrong?
Any step forward is a right step. The companies that are really getting it right are thinking about this as a major people priority. Ultimately, most of the implementation is going to happen through managers, but there needs to be some top-level directive. The most heartening thing I’ve seen is that companies are really coming around to workplace flexibility. One of every two companies has some sort of top-level directive prioritizing it. There are companies where their CEOs are open about it, and they’re doing exceptionally well. Starting to gather some data is the best approach. A lot of companies we work with have gathered some kernels of data and are looking for a way to move forward.
I think where companies falter is when they try something without data, when it’s not tracked or structured. This is not an understanding of this-is-my-schedule-and-how-I-work. Sometimes they backfire. When flexibility is applied without measures in place, it can become chaotic—just not aligned with the needs of the workforce.
How do structured, thoughtful flexibility programs affect the bottom line for companies?
We see companies that are prioritizing diversity and inclusion but still missing the mark or having trouble attracting talent. Or they’re looking to reduce costs and having trouble managing real estate—all of these are actually symptoms where one of the root causes is lack of flexibility.
The more people are able to work in a way that’s conducive to their lives and work styles, the more productive and engaged they’ll be.
Carina Livoti is a New York-based writer and editor. She earned a degree in English at Harvard and spends a lot of time wondering whether strangers wearing earbuds on the subway are actually listening to anything