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Freedom is Different than Flexibility: A Wakeup Call for Companies

freedom versus flexibility remote work

One of the biggest things that surprised me when I shifted from working for someone else to working for myself was the marked difference in freedom versus flexibility in terms of my overall well-being. 


I’ve had flexibility in the past with time off and ability to adjust time. But the structure of where, when, and how I worked was rigid. My days Monday through Friday 8-5 belonged to the company, not me. But freedom? That’s a whole different ball game. And the difference is something we should pay attention to, especially as more organizations are looking for ways to make work better for teams. Once I started to build out the company, I wanted to figure out how my colleagues could experience the same or as close to the level of freedom I felt.


I know what you might be thinking: Sure, Sarah. That sounds good conceptually. But what does freedom over flexibility look like in practice?


For my colleagues and I, freedom means we control how we spend our time, when and where we work. That might look like taking a nap in the middle of the day because we need it, and picking up some extra tasks in the evening. It might mean running an errand or two here and there mid-week and waking up earlier to get projects complete. As long as we are available for regular meetings, check in often, and continue to do stellar work with and for our clients, I consider that a success. 


As a company, team members are salaried, though I do believe in full pay for less work (ideally less than 32 hours per week).  We understand what we need to do, we hold each other accountable to do it, we intentionally build trust, and we try to remove barriers. There are seasons that are busier and seasons where we can breathe more. Focusing on outcomes vs. a set number of hours creates a culture of ownership. 


Now, of course I recognize that this arrangement isn’t possible for all industries. If you have a storefront or work in the medical field, for example, you have to be at a certain place at a certain time. Maybe you can’t have that level or autonomy . . . I get that. 


But there are still ways to show your team how much you value them (and their time) through actions.


If you’re one of the many organizations having engagement or retention issues, have you thought to pause for a moment and look in the mirror? Perhaps you’ve created this wonderful culture that you believe is rich in human-first policies, but people don’t feel safe enough to take advantage of them because they either fear repercussions or don’t see the policies encouraged or mirrored by leadership. 


And I get it. Think about how much we’ve collectively faced the last few years: many people have lost stability, lost a job or two, lost loved ones. Our values are shifting. As business owners and leaders, this is our opportunity to rise to meet the moment not only in words, but in actions. 


For example, what would happen if you asked your team what kind of culture they’d like to see and then worked to co-create it? People have the tendency to commit to that which they help create, even if it means they have to compromise a little.


I know we’re all different—different companies, different industries, different team structures—but one thing we can all do is get curious about each other and strive to make the experience of work more human.


At SNOWCO, we’re a small but mighty company. I know some companies in this field pay more than I am able, but do you know how many times I get asked if I have any openings? 


We’ve accomplished a ton as a team, and we continue to grow. Could we accomplish more if we sacrificed some of our freedom? 




Am I willing to do that? 




That’s because how we treat people matters–not just how we say we treat people, but how we actually treat them. 


As we close out 2023 and look ahead to another year, we have an opportunity to do better. Let’s take it.


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Sarah Noll Wilson is on a mission to help leaders build and rebuild teams. She aims to empower leaders to understand and honor the beautiful complexity of the humans they serve. Through her work as an Executive Coach, an in-demand Keynote Speaker, Researcher, Contributor to Harvard Business Review, and Bestselling Author of “Don’t Feed the Elephants”, Sarah helps leaders close the gap between what they intend to do and the actual impact they make. She hosts the podcast “Conversations on Conversations”, is certified in Co-Active Coaching and Conversational Intelligence, and is a frequent guest lecturer at universities. In addition to her work with organizations, Sarah is a passionate advocate for mental health.

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