Where and when: Flexible work environment is key

I spoke with a group of recruiters recently, and one of the frustrations in the room (shared by most) was related to flexibility. It is becoming more and more challenging to oversee where employees are working and when.

Technology presents ample opportunities for flexibility. Smart phones, laptops, tablets and apps continue to make work-from-home, work-from-café, work-from-the-beach increasingly more convenient. Add to this the different philosophy that Gen Y has of overall quality of life. They view the full spectrum of life to include work, family, social, mission, community, fitness, etc. And, they see all of these things intertwined into the possibility of work-life integration.

Keep in mind, however, this is not simply a Gen Y issue. According to the 2012 Cisco Connected World Technology Report, 69 percent of workers of all ages believe they have the right to work remotely with a flexible schedule.

I asked a number of employees: “What does flexibility at work mean to you personally?”

Their responses:

  • “It means I can address personal/family issues when they arise.”
  • “It means I can start my day late enough two mornings a week to get a workout in on these days.”
  • “It means I have more hours to choose from in which I can do work; not just 8 – 5.
  • “It means I can take a day off when I have a sick kid and not feel guilty.”
  • “It means I can take an afternoon off to play golf, and it’s okay because my boss knows that I get my work done. I work evenings, weekends, on vacation, etc.”

There are some downsides, the employees said: “Team members who aren’t here when we need them, people who aren’t getting their work done, things getting a bit out of control when we don’t know who will be where when; people taking advantage of the company’s so-called flexible work environment.”

In many organizations, too much is being left to chance. There is simply not enough intentionality about this topic. So, where does the responsibility lie? At every level. The organization, the leaders and individual contributors all have a responsibility. We call it cascading accountability. Let’s look at each level:

The organization: The organization has a responsibility to make clear what the parameters are for flexibility in their specific culture. For example: Marissa Meyers, CEO of Yahoo, clearly articulated Yahoo’s (yes, her) stand: “Communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side by side. That is why it is critical that we are all present in our offices.” She went on to say, essentially, that if some people wanted to quit because of this decision, that would be okay.

Locally, I spoke with Rich Tennessen, president of Eppstein Uhen Architects. He uses the term “loose tight” to define EUAs culture. “We want people to have autonomy. We want flexibility with some framework,” he said. “We have a business process and team approach that needs to be supported. We’re a creative group of people. If the framework is squeezed too tight, it won’t work either. We need a culture where creativity can thrive. That said, there is also a business process that we follow toward the deliverables. We have to make sure the process is tight and delivers for our clients. And this requires our teams to work together and to be available.”

Leaders of people: Leaders need to have clear conversations with their teams, proactively, about expectations around flexibility. What exactly does it mean? One leader may say: “Listen, the bottom line is this: I don’t care where, when or how you each complete your work. My interest is that it gets completed.” I would like to add, however, that this flexibility should not be afforded an individual who is not meeting performance expectations. Another leader may say: “Teamwork is a key component of how we do our work. Hence, in our environment, we need you all to be here for the most part. Working from home as a regular occurrence is not an option conducive to our environment. If things arise in your life, please know you can exercise the flexibility needed to address these things.”

Individual contributors: Individual contributors have a responsibility to make sure they are working within an organization that philosophically matches their need or preference for flexibility. If there is a mismatch, are they willing to honor the organization’s stance? No use trying to swim upstream every day. Additionally, they have a responsibility to consider how the degree to which they exercise flexibility affects others.

Is flexibility a sore subject for you, at the organization level, leadership level or individual contributor level? This may be a sign that conversations are necessary.

Aleta Norris is a co-founding partner of Brookfield-based Impact Consulting Group LLC and Living As A Leader, a leadership training, coaching and consulting firm. She can be reached at anorris@livingasaleader.com.

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