Leaders should set the tone on flexibility

If done well, flexibility will allow both organizations and their people to thrive

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Marissa Mayer made headlines in 2013 when one of her first decisions as Yahoo! CEO was to ban working remotely.

PepsiCo Australia and New Zealand’s CEO Robbert Rietbroek asks his leaders to “leave loudly” when they are stepping out early for personal commitments.

Last year, IBM slashed its working from home policy to encourage more in-person collaboration.

And Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook openly leaves work at 5:30 pm every day so that she can have dinner with her family… then continues her work remotely once her children have gone to bed.

Opinions on workplace flexibility are mixed, even amongst the largest organizations. Is it good for business? Do people really get more done from home? Does implementing flex-hours and a working from home policy increase trust and loyalty to the organization?

Most roles in the knowledge economy can be completed on a flexible schedule, or from a remote location for at least some of the time.

Global organizations rely on cross-border virtual teams that manage to work effectively, collaborate and build relationships. As technology advances, so does the ability to feel more connected to those who are in an office far away.

There is no doubt that working side by side in an office space can result in collaboration, strong relationships and high productivity… but being in the office 5 days a week from 9 am to 6 pm every day doesn’t guarantee this.

In fact, studies have shown that employees only spend 3 productive hours per day in the office due to breaks, interruptions, browsing the internet and spending time on personal commitments.

The most skeptical leaders believe that allowing for flexible work arrangements will lead to slacking off, reduced productivity and missed deadlines… but, an employee who cannot be trusted to work from home, also cannot be trusted to work from the office. An employee who wants to leave work early will usually find a way.

If done well, offering employees the autonomy to choose where, when and how they work will result in increased trust, accountability and engagement. Since flexible schedules increase morale and productivity, they keep employees and their bosses happier.

Having the choice to leave work early for childcare, eldercare, education or personal goals allows employees to balance the demands of work and life… ultimately reducing stress, increasing engagement and their commitment to the organization.

A balanced approach to flexibility that considers best practices along with the organization’s needs is the key to reaping its rewards.

The amount and type of flexibility will depend on the organization’s culture, the team, its individuals, the nature of their work and how much time they need to spend in the office to get it done. Organizational culture should be ready to support flexibility… and well-defined guidelines and expectations for remote working, flexible hours, personal time, trust and accountability should be made clear.

Flexibility should be offered to all equally, with teams given the autonomy to choose the amount of flexibility that works best for them. Client facing teams may spend more time offsite and at home, while onsite support may best benefit from flexible hours.

Last, organizational leadership should show their support through their words and through their actions… just like PepsiCo leaders do when they “leave loudly”… as this will let others know that it’s ok to do the same. The success of any workplace initiative depends on genuine support from leadership.

Offering flexibility at work can cost the organization very little in terms of dollars spent, and can reap the rewards of a highly engaged, motivated, loyal and productive workforce… which is as good for the organization as it is for the employee, and if done well, will allow both to thrive.  

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