The Right Approach to Workplace Flexibility

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Summary:

Policies like variable work hours and working from home are generally perceived to be employee perks, but they have benefits for the employers as well. However, the implementation of such policies lacks depth in most organizations. The right execution and monitoring is critical in ensuring good outcomes are achieved and misuse is minimized.

The recent reports of France banning work emails after 6 p.m. brought back a focus on workplace flexibility. Policies like variable work hours and working from home are generally perceived to be employee perks, but they have benefits for the employers as well.

In addition to a workforce that feels cared for, these policies are needed for a globally connected workplace. As the lines between work and off-work hours blur, employers need their employees to be available at odd times to coordinate and communicate with their coworkers and customers, who often are spread across various time zones. Introducing bans on working hours goes against the nature of business in today’s world.

Last year saw Yahoo banning working from home, affecting a significant portion of its workforce that had chosen to work remotely. While the benefits of Yahoo’s policy are debatable, the general perception is that it worked in the grand scheme of things and improved a work culture that had degraded over the years. Which brings us to a question: Where might things have gone wrong?

I have telecommuted myself and have managed employees who make use of this policy. There are immense benefits, not the least of which it helps employees manage their work and personal lives better. I can be present for my daughter’s recital in the morning and also able to join that important business meeting over Skype in the afternoon. When technology has enabled us to remain connected 24/7, there are benefits that both employees and businesses can derive from it.

That is not to say that there is no misuse of this policy—in fact, if not supervised properly, there can be blatant misuse. While there are employees who would quickly take advantage of this freedom, there are also employees who value the policy as an important perk based on mutual trust.

The best way to solve the problem of abusing workplace flexibility is by having the right set of people handling the first and second line of management. What is important to understand is that each employee is different and requires a different application of management style. I call it “polymorphic leadership”—the ability of a manager to apply a different leadership style depending on the type of employee being dealt with.

Having worked with core tech companies and large institutions, I feel there is a lot of difference in approach when hiring and grooming managerial talent. I found the hiring approach of many software companies lopsided, focusing heavily on the technical aspects of the job profile at the cost of measuring a person’s management caliber. The cost a company pays for hiring a wrong manager is immense, as it’s not just one person’s performance, but the whole team’s performance and work habits that are impacted.

However, not many companies devote effort toward grooming managers in dealing with issues related to workplace flexibility.

While workplace flexibility is often a benefit, the implementation of such policies lacks depth in most organizations. The right execution and monitoring is critical in ensuring good outcomes are achieved and misuse is minimized. Managers are vital in achieving this. They need to be trained on how to manage employees and situations involving working remotely or during irregular work hours.

Managers have to address issues related to availability, task and performance management, and a flexible team strategy so that business outcomes are not negatively impacted in such conditions.

The channels of communication need to properly defined—how the team shall communicate and stay connected while working apart, effectively using the technology and tools at their disposal. But when available, the use of face time should be maximized within the team, effectively using it for issues and topics that cannot be handled remotely.

In addition to a regular workday, early morning or late night meetings are a reality for most technology professionals across the globe. The importance of remaining connected with global counterparts cannot be understated. Managers need to ensure that employees are not being stretched or burnt out, while also devising ways to facilitate regular, unobstructed communication between colleagues spread across different sites. Managers across company locations need to work closely on overall strategy, project planning, team health, and all management and technical matters.

Corporations and countries need to be versatile to remain competitive in today’s connected global workplace. The time has come for workplace flexibility to be truly embedded into the culture of the modern workplace.

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