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The Workplace Scoop Interviews: The Importance of Flexibility in Work

How to shift from "where" to "how" in a future of work that focuses on flexibility.
Biljana Rakic on flexible work
In this article

Curious about the future of work? “The Workplace Scoop” serves up insightful conversations with industry leaders, unpacking the latest trends in the labor market and employee experience.

Today’s guest: Biljana Rakic, VP of Human Capital at CAKE.com. CAKE.com empowers businesses of all sizes to streamline operations with its project management (Plaky), team chat (Pumble), and time tracking (Clockify) tools, serving more than 7 million users globally.

Today’s topic: how to design a remote and flexible work culture that focuses on trust and flexibility, while prioritizing deadlines and ditching perfectionism. With over 400 employees successfully navigating a remote-first work environment, CAKE.com is a true inspiration. Today, we’ll tap into Biljana’s expertise as she’s sharing how CAKE.com built a culture of transparency, accountability, and flexibility, while leaving micromanagement firmly in the rearview mirror.

Let’s roll!

Flexible Work: The Choice of the Future?

  1. Alina from Tidaro: Biljana, do you think we’re going through a tiny revolution here, where getting the job done on time is valued more than how, where, and in how much time it gets done?  

Biljana: I have to agree with you on this. 

We are going through a revolution, and I think that this increased focus on meeting deadlines rather than how the work is done is a result of choosing quantity over quality. 

Some people may read this and think, “Well, that’s a dicey trade-off.” 

In reality, this approach can help us beat both perfectionism and procrastination. 

Flexible work

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Let’s say your deadline is tomorrow, but you’re unsure about the quality of your work. Ideally, you’d like a few more days to review the task and add the finishing touches. Asking for an extension from time to time isn’t a problem, but repeating this behavior can push back meetings, project kickoffs, or product launches. If an organization continuously polices how or where employees do their work instead of when the work should be done, it may inadvertently encourage this type of perfectionism. 

However, when we accept that our work won’t always be perfect, we can take on a new task and keep honing our skills. The more projects you work on — even if you’re not completely satisfied with your contributions — the more you learn from your mistakes and how to tackle similar challenges in the future. 

This isn’t a revolutionary concept, but its implementation is still relatively new in the business world. I believe it’s something we’ll see in more and more companies in the future — this increased prioritization of quantity and deadlines. It allows employees to experiment with different workflows and find what triggers their motivation and creativity. And, it’s difficult to tap into that type of growth if you’re constantly worried about how and where you need to work.

  1. Alina from Tidaro: You mentioned quantity and deadlines :). You’ve just paved the way for my next question. Whenever I read topics around hybrid work, remote work, office work, it seems that all roads lead to “productivity”. And oftentimes I hear how difficult it is to actually track productivity. If companies aren’t using tools such as Clockify, how can they measure it properly or set up benchmarks? Because, there are lots of particularities across various functions: design, marketing, human resources…

Biljana: Tracking productivity can be a stumbling block for many companies. 

Depending on the industry, it might be necessary to account for numerous variables, which is why it’s essential to set clear goals. 

One way to gauge productivity is to compare completed tasks against each other using quality as a criterion. We can focus on how quickly the projects were finished or compare several points from each task. Then, that data can guide us in refining both short-term and long-term strategies. 

You don’t have to rely solely on time-tracking tools to clarify task management and delegation. At CAKE.com, we use Plaky — our project management app — to simplify the process and ensure everyone knows their responsibilities. 

You can see the description, deadline, and who takes over when you finish your part for each task or project. Thanks to this, you can devote more attention to the overall quality of the product and add this factor to the productivity equation.

Of course, this equation varies across roles and industries, so before introducing any drastic changes, leadership should define the milestones they hope to achieve. 

  1. Alina from Tidaro: Speaking of drastic changes…A few days ago, I was reading a newsletter a while back and found the following opinion. “Every single employee should be forced to work in the office 5 days a week for at least the next 6 months. It doesn’t mean you need to be there from 9-5 but you need to be there every…single…day, for the next 180 days.” 

The quote belongs to a Future of Work and Employee Experience expert (120k+ followers).

And then I read a statement you gave a while back: “As a remote-first company, one of our most important values is trust. We put immense trust in every single employee’s abilities, and we trust they will do a great job.”

I realized that the key thing here is the word “trust”. 

What relationship do you see between trust and productivity?

Biljana: When it comes to trust and productivity, the numbers don’t lie. 

I recently read an article on the neuroscience of trust, which really stuck with me. 

It explained that employees experience significantly less stress in high-trust organizations than in low-trust companies. Moreover, higher levels of trust boost engagement and productivity and prevent the risk of burnout. 

I can attest to this from my own experience at CAKE.com. It’s something we aim to do the moment a new employee comes on board — show that we trust them to manage their work and time. And, if that trust is broken, it’s all the more difficult to repair the relationship and get back to the level of trust that once existed. This is unfortunate because when trust disappears, performance falters, causing long-lasting issues for businesses and their employees.

  1. Alina from Tidaro: Circling back to the statements above…I had a thought. So, if a person is productive in the office, will that person be productive outside of it as well (given similar circumstances: tech, proper home office, no disturbances, etc.)? I mean, is productivity a character trait? 

Biljana: Productivity depends on several factors and nearly always fluctuates during adjustment periods.  

For instance, if you’re moving from a remote setup to a hybrid model, you might need some time to adjust to this new environment and schedule. Similarly, your productivity may waver slightly if you leave on-site work in favor of remote work. 

Regardless of these ebbs and flows in our productivity, it isn’t the product of our environment alone. Another essential ingredient is employee motivation, which largely stems from workplace culture. When we feel like we personally align with the organizational message and that our peers value and respect our contributions, we’re more motivated to keep doing our best work. So, in a human-centered culture, working from the office or remotely shouldn’t cause significant productivity shifts.  

We learned this lesson a few years back when the COVID pandemic left most businesses no choice but to go remote. Many CAKE.com employees had to work from home full-time for the first time. The particular connection and security you feel when surrounded by colleagues disappeared, and people began to feel detached from the company. 

Thus, we started rethinking our strategy — how can we make people feel seen and heard while working remotely? Soon, we started organizing workshops and informal online activities to replenish the social connection that suffered the most during this period. Had we not done anything, some employees may have taken that to mean that they don’t belong here and that they don’t matter, and such feelings can shatter employee motivation.

  1. Alina from Tidaro: Speaking of employee motivation, my next question is a tricky one, but I got inspired by this CAKE.com commercial, with the message “On a mission to simplify your world”.  Nenad Milanovic, CAKE.com’s CEO, developed the statement even further: “On a mission to simplify your world so you can do more of what makes you happy”.

So, let’s say some people are really productive, and finish a task way ahead of time. Should they jump onto another task right away? Or can they do ”more of what makes them happy?” Should we be more goal-focused or 9-to-5 focused?

Biljana: I like to describe myself as purpose-oriented when it comes to work. What I mean by this is that I find meaning and joy in the work that I do, and I aim to make someone else’s life better through my actions. Now, does this go hand-in-hand with adhering to a strict 9-5 schedule to maintain productivity? Not necessarily. 

If your job provides you with a sense of purpose, you won’t look at the clock until you’ve done what you need to do. However, it’s unlikely you can avoid running into tedious tasks forever. 

Here’s where perseverance kicks in — an essential building block of professional success and work-life balance. 

When you stay focused on long-term goals — like financial, professional, or personal development goals, for example — you’re more likely to keep pushing even if you’d rather give up. In the workplace, this means that you’ll see things through, although you’re tempted to leave things for tomorrow or next week. 

Once you think about your long-term ambitions, you realize that other people are counting on you to do a good job and that you’re betting on yourself to show up even when you don’t feel like it. Naturally, this doesn’t always call for jumping on a new project as soon as you finish the previous one. For perseverance to last, we have to clock out — both physically and mentally — and take the time to properly recharge. 

  1. Alina from Tidaro: You just gave me some a-ha moments. I mean, I was feeling some of the things you mentioned, but couldn’t really put them into words :). 

Let’s push these topics a bit further. We are aware that employees value flexibility and control of their time a lot. But this can be at odds with employers’ approach to work. How can employees and employers meet in the middle and have a win-win, while also ensuring productivity?

Biljana: From the onset, leadership and management need to be clear about company goals and expectations to avoid infringing on the independence and flexibility of their employees. 

So, leadership should have frequent and transparent check-ins with managers, and the managers themselves need to reflect on how they communicate with their teams. Effective communication is so much more than relaying a simple message, so having a manager who is aware of their communication style can be instrumental in ensuring there are no misunderstandings. Then, when everyone is on the same page about expectations and responsibilities, trust solidifies both flexibility and independence at work. 

Now, the team lead or manager needs to stay open to any questions the team may have and provide adequate and timely support. If the results falter, the manager might schedule a check-in to see what is causing the issue. Rather than micromanaging employees and applying unnecessary pressure, it’s better to return to the company’s communication procedures and identify the gaps. 

Why are the results unsatisfactory? What did we miss? How can we fix this and move forward in a more sustainable way?

For this approach to work, employees need to stand behind the organization’s vision and take ownership of their work. None of this is possible in a culture of micromanagement. 

How to Manage Remote Teams

  1. Alina from Tidaro: CAKE.com is a remote-first company. Can you share with us some advice on how to properly manage remote teams without communication glitches and falling into the trap of micromanagement?

Biljana: One way to view micromanagement is as the absence of trust. It has a detrimental effect even on in-office workers, where excessive surveillance hinders employee morale, creativity, and motivation. But, for remote teams, when most — if not all — colleagues are working from different locations, it can have an even more lingering effect. 

Again, we circle back to trust. As a company that fully embraces remote work, we trust that our employees know how to approach their tasks and navigate their schedules. When workers have autonomy, they can lean into their strengths and make decisions on their own terms. 

This flexibility doesn’t necessarily look like a traditional 9-5 schedule, but it also doesn’t mean that we don’t have deadlines. Before diving into a new project or task, management should go over expectations so that everyone knows what they need to do and by when. 

Scheduling too many meetings to pressure remote workers about their progress can be stifling. Instead, it’s much better to reiterate that the lines of communication are always open. Trust that remote workers will ask for help when they need it, and be there to provide that guidance. 

At the end of the day, there’s no foolproof way of knowing what an employee is actually doing. Even if someone is in the office, they’ll find ways to slack off if that’s what they want to do. But, giving people the benefit of the doubt and believing they want to grow and do their best work is far better than micromanagement. 

  1. Alina from Tidaro: I totally agree with you here. And we’re trying to have the same approach here, in Tidaro. We are also a remote-first company. Now, what I noticed is that Mmany entrepreneurs fear that if teams work remotely they will lose their sense of belonging to the team or company. What’s your take here?

Biljana: One of the main concerns many organizations have regarding remote work is exactly what you brought up — that remote employees will feel disconnected from their peers and the company. 

And, it’s a valid concern. Besides meetings and similar obligations, a lot of informal communication happens in the workplace. You get to see what coworkers have for lunch, what their sense of humor is like, and other glimpses of their personalities that are not always present in professional communication. Naturally, small talk fills in the silent moments in the office, and you learn a lot about your coworkers beyond the strictly professional sense. 

remote work

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This kind of chitchat doesn’t occur in remote environments. You can’t ask your teammate what they did during the weekend or grab a cup of coffee over lunch break. A sense of separation can develop, where remote workers feel less valued than their in-office colleagues. 

So, how can we foster a sustainable remote-first culture? 

Setting up ground rules can help, especially regarding communication. We use Pumble — our business communication app — to keep all of our interactions in one place, and this includes voice calls and video meetings. Having one platform where we connect eliminates a lot of tedious work, such as switching between several apps, writing emails, or scheduling meetings. Whenever you need to contact a coworker, you know how to reach them in just a few seconds. 

But, well-connected teams don’t form solely through professional interactions. For this reason, it’s essential to encourage informal communication, too. Meetings without an agenda can promote casual conversation and help bridge the physical distance. Small talk usually doesn’t take up too much time, making it a healthy option for growing closer with teammates. 

We’ve tried to achieve something similar with our buddy system, which connects new hires with people who have been with the organization for a while. When you join a remote-first company like CAKE.com, you may feel a bit afraid — especially if you’ve never worked from home before. So, when you talk to your work buddy, they can answer any lingering questions and alleviate concerns. Because the buddy is usually from a different department than the new hire, the conversations often veer into non-work-related topics, so these meetings become a form of social bonding and integration. 

What we need to keep in mind is that working remotely doesn’t mean working whenever you like. If you’re collaborating with teammates and you need to send over your work before they take over, your schedules have to align. It’s up to managers to determine what the schedule should look like. Some teams may only need to align their schedules for a few hours a day. For others, it may take working at the same time a few days a week. It all depends on the nature of the project.

  1. Alina from Tidaro: I love the idea of the buddy system! And it makes so much sense to have a buddy from another team. Speaking of non-work related topics…In Tidaro we started having a “weekly” podcast. We meet virtually and talk about totally random subjects: from how the brain works to video games and ghosts. It gets both smart and fun, and we manage to know each other better, and feel connected even if we are miles away. The podcast became our “office” water cooler chat.

Speaking of offices… What’s the role of the office when dealing with hybrid or remote teams? 

Biljana: The first thing that came to my mind was to say the office serves as a type of warehouse. People who work from the office know how quickly coffee cups can pile up. 

On a more serious note, with hybrid arrangements, the office is a kind of headquarters where we come together to redefine strategies and decide on approaches. However, a potential problem with hybrid models is that people may begin to treat the office as an informal space for casual conversation. This issue arises when there are no ground rules keeping everyone accountable. 

Let’s say the organization determines that 3 days of the week are for on-site work — this simple action sends the message that those 3 days aren’t an extension of personal time you just happen to spend with colleagues. Now, you know these days are for more focused work, where professional contact spurs your motivation and creativity. 

And, because information and ideas flow quickly when we collaborate in person, remote workers can feel left out. Here, it’s important to reiterate that the office is open for remote workers should they decide to switch up their schedules. 

The office is also a good place to hold in-person events or informal team-building activities. Still, that may not be possible for bigger organizations due to the sheer number of employees. 

Thus, organizing remote social interactions from the office may be a more effective way of bringing both on-site and remote workers together. 

  1.  Alina from Tidaro: I like how you’re reframing the purpose of the office for hybrid models.  And you’re right, exploring options for virtual team-building activities could help bridge the divide between remote and on-site workers.

Thanks Biljana for accepting our interview invite! 

And because the topics  we talked about were really serious, I wanted to conclude on a funnier note. So, what’s Biljana’s favorite HR joke? 

Biljana: Thank you for having me, Alina.

That’s a tough question. I can share one I remember hearing recently that made me chuckle.

“Do you know why most HR professionals are on the wrong career path? Because if they really wanted to foster a positive environment, they’d open a comedy club or daycare center.”

Conclusion

This interview with Biljana was really empowering. I really felt that the workplace can become a place where we can thrive and grow.

Now, here’s a short summary of the interview:

  • Revolution in Work: We’re shifting from focusing on “how” work is done to meeting deadlines, prioritizing quantity over quality to avoid perfectionism and procrastination.
  • Trust and Productivity: High-trust workplaces lead to less stress, higher engagement, and prevent burnout.
  • Productivity and Environment: While the environment can impact productivity, a strong workplace culture that motivates employees is key.
  • Purpose-Driven Work: Finding meaning and joy in work increases motivation, but focus shouldn’t solely rely on a 9-to-5 schedule.
  • Perseverance and Work-Life Balance: Long-term goals and perseverance help push through challenging tasks. Disconnecting and recharging are crucial for sustained productivity.
  • Transparency and Communication: Clear company goals and expectations set the foundation for trust, flexibility, and independence at work.
  • Managing Remote Teams: Micromanagement hinders remote teams. Trust employees to manage their schedules while setting clear deadlines and expectations.
  • Combating Isolation in Remote Work: Encourage informal communication through dedicated channels and activities like “buddy systems” to foster team connection.
  • Redefining the Office in Hybrid Models: The office becomes a headquarters for strategy and collaboration, with clear boundaries to avoid casual conversation replacing focused work. It can also host in-person events or be a base for remote social activities.

This concludes another interview from our series “The Workplace Scoop”. If you want more insights on how to manage flexible work, hybrid and remote work, we’ve prepared this thorough guide you’ll definitely enjoy: Mastering Hybrid Work.

Alina Belascu
Alina Belascu
Alina is a digital marketer with a passion for web design. When she’s not strategizing she’s doing photography, listening to podcasts on history and psychology, and playing with her 2 dogs and cat.