Increase Workplace Flexibility and Boost Performance
April 2, 2014 Editor 0
The potential benefits of workplace variability are numerous — increased morale, motivation, and the ability to attract and retain talent — yet many managers don’t know where to start. Others are afraid that performance could suffer or something important could fall through the cracks.
Even the most employee-oriented managers have concerns about having employees work outside of normal work hours or at places other than the office. However, by taking a job design approach to workplace flexibility, managers can get the benefits of offering more flexibility while minimizing the downside. Here’s what you need to know:
Not all jobs are conducive to time or place flexibility. However, most have certain duties that are amenable to being done at alternate times and places other than the office. If you look at the jobs you supervise and break them into their component parts, it is likely you’ll find that some tasks, maybe even up to a third of an entire job, lend themselves to time and place flexibility.
A marketing research specialist, for example, needs to collaborate with colleagues and clients. However, she also has tasks that are best done alone and undistracted. Someone in this job may be a good candidate for part-time telecommuting, perhaps one or two days from home. In this way, the specialist has uninterrupted time for deep study and analysis, without the distractions of the office (and saving time and money on a commute), while also being present enough of the workweek for collaboration, conversations and creativity.
Flexibility does not have to be all or nothing. In fact, it’s usually better when it’s not.
Just like all jobs are not equally conducive to flexibility, some employees are better candidates for flexibility than others. If you have a high-performing employee who has proven he can self-manage well, you probably can entrust him with more flexibility. If you have a more unproven employee, or one whom you feel needs more structure and hands-on guidance, I’d talk to them about what they need to prove to you before they earn a more flexible arrangement.
In fact, I often advocate that workplace flexibility arrangements start on a part-time basis for an initial trial period. By doing so, you can better gauge how an employee either rises to the occasion or struggles with too much autonomy, and adjust accordingly.
In her groundbreaking research, Harvard economist Claudia Goldin found that careers in which work is substitutable tend to have more flexibility and gender equity. That is, when the completion of work is not fully dependent on one individual employee, but rather when employees can coordinate actions to the point that many can competently satisfy client needs, employees are freer to work more flexibly.
Goldin noted that scientific, medical and technical fields tend to have substitutable work environments, while law, business and finance tend not to. There are obvious limits to redesigning work to create more substitutability, but many workplaces, maybe even yours, could benefit by doing so. You can increase substitutability in three ways:
Increased Teamwork. For example, you can give the responsibility for projects or for client accounts to a small team, rather than a single individual. When a team has sufficient interaction and overlapping duties, they can be well coordinated even if some team members occasionally work alternate schedules or partially from home. In fact, this is why most flextime arrangements mandate “core hours” for all employees. Further, a team-based approach also means that work can be completed and emergencies can be addressed without every member being present or on-call 24/7. This enables employees to put down the smartphone while at home, on weekends or on vacation, knowing that teammates can fill in seamlessly, reducing the negative effects of chronic overwork.
Mentoring and Development. One can generate similar benefits by pairing senior and junior employees on projects or client accounts. The junior staffer gains experience and exposure by working with someone more expert; the senior staffer can delegate tasks, freeing up time; the organization develops talent. This arrangement also means that, at times, the protégé can step in if needed, reducing the need for the mentor to be constantly present or on-call.
Coordination Technology. For example, pharmacists make extensive use of information technology to share work and coordinate patient care (Goldin calls pharmacy “the most egalitarian of professions”). Because information is compiled and shared readily, the pharmacist who begins an order and checks patient information for complications does not also have to be the same pharmacist who processes the order, prepares the doses, interacts with the patient, or works with that patient long-term. This approach allows pharmacists to work more humane and flexible schedules, while still performing effectively.
Even in less substitutable work environments, information technology can enable employees to remain connected when working remotely and help teams coordinate actions. Home-based Internet, smartphones, project management software, and helpful computer programs such as FreeConferenceCall, Google docs, gotomyPC, and JoinMe (to name a few) allow employees to remain accessible to clients/management and to share work. Before expanding workplace flexibility, you need to have the proper support systems in place.
So workplace flexibility is a key to attracting and retaining talent. If properly managed, with an eye towards effective job redesign, flexibility can also enhance performance.
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