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What It Takes To Build And Sustain A Flexible Workplace

Lessons on how to make a remote office work from a company focused on creating and sharing virtual work opportunities around the world.

What It Takes To Build And Sustain A Flexible Workplace
[Photo: Flickr user depone]

Sara Sutton Fell had a three-month-old baby at home when she decided to take the leap and launch her company FlexJobs in 2007.

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Starting a company with a newborn wasn’t her original plan. Fell had been laid off from her senior-level job at a startup when she was eight months pregnant. “The glass ceiling became really clear to me when I was pregnant with my first child,” she says.

“I was going on interviews in my third trimester. You can imagine how well that went,” Fell adds. “No matter how qualified I am, this baby right here in my belly that you’re staring at as I talk to you is what you’re thinking about.”

Not only was it tough to land a job in her very pregnant state, Fell was looking for something flexible that would let her work part-time or remotely now that she was about to become a parent.

But all the telecommuting jobs Fell came across were either rudimentary work or straight-up scams. This is a common problem for people looking to work from home. For every real telecommuting job posted online, Fell estimates there are between 60 to 70 scams. What’s more, the legitimate jobs out there often aren’t appealing to people interested in building on their career experience.

Fell, for example, had already co-founded and sold a company by the time she was 21, and had taken on various senior leadership roles over the years. “So many of the jobs I was finding were really low level and not career oriented,” she says. “These opportunities exist. I started looking everywhere and quickly was stunned at what a wasted space it was.”

Creating Your Own Flexible Work Environment

Fell decided if she couldn’t find the right resource to help her score a flexible job, she would build one herself. Thanks to the backing of an investor she had done consulting work for, she was able to build and launch FlexJobs, a $15-a-month subscription-based service that offers job listings for flexible positions across industries and career levels.

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FlexJobs has since grown to include around 24,000 job postings and a staff of 68–all of whom work remotely. “In some cases, I’ve worked with people for years who I haven’t met,” says Fell.

But despite the lack of a central office where employees congregate, FlexJobs has a low turnover rate and Fell takes community-building very seriously. “The company culture we’ve been able to build is the healthiest most productive one I’ve ever experienced,” she says.

So what makes a flexible job arrangement work best for both employee and employer? Fell shares her insights with Fast Company.

Assess Your Work Patterns First

Adding flexibility to an existing job is a common route for people to take. A job that might not start out with a telecommuting component, for example, can turn into one with the right approach. For employees looking to ask for more flexibility in their jobs, Fell recommends taking at least a week to log all of the work you do–determining what percentage of your job can be done autonomously. Ask yourself which tasks you do best without distraction.

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A survey by FlexJobs found that 54% of people choose their home office rather than their work office to get important job-related assignments done, and only 19% said working in the office during regular work hours was their preference when getting important work done.

Know your own patterns and come up with a specific ask rather than expecting complete flexibility or making a vague request. That might mean starting with a half day or one day of telecommuting a week.

Find Ways To Connect Personally

Maintaining a relationship with the people you work with when you work remotely requires extra effort. You aren’t going to bump into colleagues in the kitchen where you’re guaranteed at least a little small talk. Mundane as they may seem, those moments are important for building a rapport with the people you work with. You have to find other ways to do that when working virtually. “It’s really easy just to dive into the work and fire off an email on Monday morning asking for the deliverable and not ask, ‘How was your weekend?’ first,” says Fell.

With her own staff, she always starts phone calls off with some personal conversation–the kind you might have with a coworker in the office kitchen while making a cup of tea. Fell also tries to recreate other personal touches that employees might find in the office. Each year, around Halloween, all of her employees get small care packages in the mail containing their favorite candy––what Fell calls a “virtual candy bowl.”

Create Community Experiences

Having shared experiences with the people you work with is also an important way to stay connected and feel part of a community. In the office environment, that might translate into happy hour, a softball team, or brown-bag lunches. At FlexJobs, employees are invited to join in on a monthly video-desk yoga class. Fell also likes to hold virtual brown-bag lunches to give people a chance to talk and get to know each other. “For me, I just try to think, ‘What would you do in an office in this scenario? How do you translate that into the virtual space?'” says Fell.

Make Giving And Receiving Feedback A Priority

If you’re not in the same place at the same time, it can often be hard to read the people you’re working with. You don’t have the visual cues of facial expressions or the brief in-person check-ins that can happen in an office situation. But there are still ways to give and receive feedback. At FlexJobs, the staff gets quarterly reviews and Fell tries to be upfront about expectations and strategies for communicating. She has an HR person on staff who keeps a pulse on how everyone in the company is doing, checking in with them regularly. “We are doing best practices stuff,” says Fell. “What we do would benefit any company.”

About the author

Jane Porter writes about creativity, business, technology, health, education and literature. She's a 2013 Emerging Writing Fellow with the Center For Fiction.

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