Employee Flexibility and Adaptability

May 11 2023
5 min read
Employee Flexibility and Adaptability

Employee flexibility and adaptability – what’s the difference? And what’s the similarity? Some organizations believe these terms are synonymous, but that’s not quite true. Understanding the contrast is essential for HR teams that are building a flexible workplace and now need to equip employees with the right skills for this kind of environment. 

Flexibility vs. Adaptability

“Employee flexibility” describes the type of employee who works within a flexible workplace. This is an environment where both the organization and the employee agree to an alternative setting for at least part of the work week. Examples of flexible workplaces include work from home arrangements, remote work, and flex time. 

Adaptability,” on the other hand, refers to the traits that an employee who is under pressure uses in the workplace, no matter where it is. Adaptability is something needed in an unpredictable situation. This might happen in the office during a crisis. But in a flexible workplace and its unconventional setting, the risk can be even greater. When a situation really gets tough, it is adaptability that saves the day. 

In a phrase, successful employee flexibility depends on adaptability.    

When Flexibility Is Enough

Flexible work environments are by nature different from the office. Even though workers generally prefer flexibility, it turns out they also miss interpersonal connections. In addition, because they have less supervision than in the office, employees don’t always have clear instructions or the focus that results from being surrounded by coworkers. 

According to this Pew Research study, common challenges for flexible employees include:

  • Motivation (36%)
  • Interruptions (32%)
  • Having enough space (23%)
  • Meeting deadlines (19%)
  • Having the right technology and equipment (13%)

To address these issues, HR can implement a program to improve flexibility skills, such as self-management, technical skills, change management, and professional skills. The goal here is to help employees adjust to their new setting and minimize how it interferes with their productivity. 

When Adaptability Is Needed

The skills related to adaptability become critical when it isn’t business as usual. These types of situations can unfold in many ways–here are some examples:

  • Sudden management change
  • The loss of a major customer
  • Significant quality control issues
  • Lack of supplies
  • Labor strikes
  • Natural disasters
  • Technological failures

Dealing with these challenges calls for adaptability skills, of which there are two types:

  • Reactive adaptive skills permit fast reactions to unforeseen events
  • Proactive adaptive skills allow employees to rapidly adjust to new situations 

Rapid adaptation means that regular operations tend to stop as everybody contributes their expertise and learns how to function by a new set of rules. Such quick changes are difficult enough to do under the best of circumstances.

But in a flexible workplace, adaptability is even more problematic, for two reasons:

  • Remote workers might not be able to really understand the situation, provide advice, or properly learn how to cope. 
  • In turn, on-site workers have a greater burden and need to spend time helping remote workers who are limited in their abilities to react.

Getting From Passive to Active with Adaptive Skills

Perhaps the main difference between flexibility and adaptability is that the former enhances individual productivity, while the latter turns the employee into a team player. When troubles start, it’s all hands on deck. The traits of an employee with adaptive skills enable them to help create and then implement solutions. Adaptive skills include:


Maybe the most crucial skill for employees to have in a troubled situation is the ability to take initiative. In a flexible workplace, you never know who will be physically present and best situated to handle problems, whether on their own or as part of a team. Even employees at home can still contribute towards getting organized and thinking up recommendations by asserting themselves. 

Problem Solving

Problem solving skills can be developed both for individual challenges and for collaborative projects. For adaptability skills, which tend to be needed during crises, HR should focus on the collaborative aspect. 

Decision Making

If problem solving involves brainstorming and creating options, decision making is about boiling down your choices to something practical. It’s a skill that is closely related to critical thinking, which is an ability that always comes in handy. 

The Importance of Change Management

One key area of crossover between flexibility and adaptability is in change management skills. This makes sense, because moving from the standard workplace to an alternative arrangement is one type of change. Another is the fast adjustments needed in an emergency, and that’s where adaptive skills are important. If an organization only has time to train for one skill set while converting to a flexible workplace, change management is the most essential.    

The GrowthSpace Connection

The common denominator for flexibility and adaptability is having the skills. Whether you are just starting a workplace flexibility initiative, or acclimatizing experienced employees to a new work environment, skills make the difference between gaining success and getting lost. 

With GrowthSpace, HR can identify exactly what skills each employee needs, and match them with outstanding L&D specialists. The result is an organization that is ready for any challenge, whether at home, in the office, or somewhere in between.

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