How To Manage A Flexible Workforce, And Make Sure Work-At-Home Employees Keep Innovating

Do employees need to be in the office to stay competitive in the 21st-century workplace? (Marissa Mayer, we're looking at you.)

As the editorial director of Working Mother magazine, Jennifer Owens champions workplace flexibility in a professional capacity. Every year, she and her staff highlight companies with flexible work hours and telecommuting options. But she also practices what she preaches, with many of her staff members working when and where they choose. “As long as I can get to you and get the job done, I kind of don’t care,” Owens says. And while Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer famously announced last winter that employees needed to be in the office to be innovative, Owens insists that “I never want for new ideas.”

Here are her tips for managing employees who control their own schedules.

1. Hire well.
“My team has been together a long time,” Owens says. “We trust each other. We have each others’ backs. We’ve worked really hard to be like that.” Consequently, she’s not worried that someone will play Solitaire on his or her computer for four hours a day (as she once found a co-worker doing years ago at another publication). She sets clear expectations, then holds her team accountable. “If we can’t get the job done, that’s a management issue, not flexibility’s fault,” she says.

Hiring well is always tricky, but the good news is that if you offer potential employees flexible work arrangements and the ability to work from home sometimes, you might be able to attract a higher caliber of talent than you could otherwise afford. People value flexibility enough that they often choose it over higher compensation.

2. Stop thinking either/or.
“There’s this thought that telecommuting means you’re never in the office,” Owens says. In reality, flexible arrangements work best if people split their weeks—some time in the office and some time away. That gives you time to collaborate and innovate, but also time to execute on ideas in peace and quiet. All three of Owens’ teams meet weekly, often in person. “I’m not saying face time isn’t important. It is. I just don’t need it all the time,” she says. If you think about it, for most knowledge work, five days a week of face time is probably overkill, with diminishing marginal returns in terms of serendipitous interactions.

3. Get visual.
Owens relies on Google Hangout, and other managers swear by Skype. Seeing people’s faces means you get a real read on how they’re feeling (“Am I the first person to discover this?” Owens jokes). Yes, this means that working from home can’t mean working in your pajamas, but most people don’t do that anyway. A survey on flexible work—that Working Mother magazine will be releasing for National Flex Day on October 15—found that 63% of telecommuters sport casual clothes in their home offices.

4. Be firm if need be.
“When you take flexibility, you probably have to give something back as well,” says Owens. For many people, this means answering emails at night and on weekends. Being “on” is the price you pay for not having to be in the office at certain times. You can make it clear to your staff that “if the work gets done, it’s fine,” but the first part of that sentence is the important part.

5. Feel free to work how you work best, too.
Owens works from home on Fridays. (Ahem, she's not the only one to make it a special day.) With the rest of her week booked with meetings, “Friday is my day to actually be an editor,” she says. “It’s just a quieter time.” She tends to leave at a normal time on Mondays and Wednesdays, but “I work late on Tuesdays and Thursdays to get caught up and do what I have to do,” she says. “Flexibility isn’t about me taking time away from work.”

It’s about working in a way that makes work work well.

[Image: Flickr user Dale Mastin]

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3 Comments

  • AllisonOKelly

    Great piece, Laura, and wonderful tips for managing a flexible workforce, Jennifer. My favorite tip: feel free to work how you work best. According to a recent Mom Corps survey conducted by Harris Interactive, 68% of working adults agree that their company would be willing to accommodate them if they requested a flexible work schedule.
    Workplace success should be about the quality of work, not the amount of hours you work or whether or not having children is a qualifier to receive these perks. Flexibility as an alternative work policy has proven to benefit all types of professionals, as well as employers. Within a ROWE (results oriented work environment), employees can work when and how they want as long as they accomplish their work. Thus, success isn’t measured by hours spent on the clock, but rather by concrete results. -Allison O'Kelly, founder/CEO Mom Corps (www.momcorps.com)

  • Jose Palomino

    My team works a little at home and a little at the office, and it provides for different types of productivity.  From home, they tend to get a lot more done -- a lot of projects completed.  However, at the office, we get a lot of brainstorming and meetings done -- and I am able to coach and lead them more when they are in person.  It's a great balance and, I think, the future of all smart companies.