Early in my career, one of my direct reports asked me if she could travel to Europe with her boyfriend for a few months. The answer was no. A week, two weeks, and the answer may have been different. But at the time, business communications required a lot of face-to-face work, and a couple of months away would have been hard on the team.
Fast forward to today, and the game has changed. The voice, video, and collaboration technology enabling remote work and distributed offices is vastly improved.
Still, managers struggle to figure out the best way to enable flexible work schedules. A couple months ago, 30 million workers in Britain received the right to ask for flexible work hours, but no unifying policy governs U.S. employees. Some 12% of senior decision makers in small and medium enterprises say facilitating flexible and remote work is one of their top business headaches. And 28% said staff productivity was their top challenge in managing the workforce.
There could be a perceived disconnect between what employees want and what management wants to give. Employees want flexibility and employers want productivity. So how do we bridge the gap between the two, and is there really a gap or simply a new management challenge in our ever evolving workplace? Here are five observations about the push for a flexible workplace and tips for mending the employer-employee relationship so everyone comes out on top.
The good news is that, according to a recent survey on workplace flexibility, 65% of organizations say that flexibility has an extremely positive impact on employee engagement, motivation, and satisfaction. At the same time, nearly every millennial—89% according to freelancer resource oDesk—would prefer to choose when and where they work over being placed in a 9-to-5 position, and 45% would choose workplace flexibility over better pay. You have the power to motivate employees with a dispensable resource—so use it wisely.
The same technology—smartphones—that is driving the workforce to be ultra-productive is the cause of huge challenges. Thanks to technology, company security is often forfeited, yet portable personal devices mean employees can work anywhere, any time. It’s up to you to decide how to best enable mobile access for your business. Give your employees the ability to manage their business and personal communications separately, from the same device. Do your best to manage expectations regarding appropriate email response times, especially during the night, and on weekends and vacation periods.
A recent Glassdoor survey revealed that half of Americans no longer use all of their vacation days, and 15% don’t take any vacation at all. But perhaps more surprisingly, 20% talked to their boss or coworkers while on vacation. Glassdoor researchers dubbed this phenomenon the "work martyr complex," or feelings of insecurity combined with a "nobody-else-can-do-my-job" attitude. Both employers and employees must shift their ideas about job security to truly achieve work-life balance and a flexible work environment. Employees shouldn’t leave for the beach with a task list in tow, and employers should respect their need to take a break.
In a recent RingCentral survey of millennial employees, 60% said their employers expect them to be accessible during off hours, and 70% work up to 20 hours or more outside the office each week. If you maintain unrealistic expectations about how much work your employees can get done, it will set you up for a future of dissatisfaction with employees who appear to "not be trying hard enough." Which brings me to my next point . . .
Eur digital devices cross boundaries between work and home spheres. President Obama recently stated, "most of our days consist of work, family, and not much else, and those two spheres are constantly interacting with each other." I agree—it’s okay for your employees to do a little work at home, and a few of life’s tasks at work. Employers should support these blurred lines by equipping workers with the secure technology required to work from wherever, at any hour.
The good news is that your employees want to be productive. There’s no denying that Americans are getting their work done, and hard workers will improve your bottom line. The flexible workplace can be used to your advantage, but it can also backfire if your employees are not given rules, BYOD policies and clear expectations for when work is required, and when they should simply take a break. Today’s workplace is driving a mammoth shift in how and when we work. If managers stay ahead of the curve, they can manage the flexible workplace while keeping workers happy and productive.
—Kira Makagon is a serial entrepreneur and seasoned executive who has co-founded several technology companies, including participation in successful IPOs with Scopus (NASDAQ: SCOP) and RingCentral (NYSE: RNG).