Imagine a conference room with shiny chrome surfaces, blue couches and tall windows showing the tops of skyscrapers and the Hudson River in the distance. It is 8:30 a.m. in this consulting firm and the air is filled with the smell of coffee and the sounds of voices: “This is the way of the future. My neighbor works for an IT company for a large nonprofit and has for years. We’re going to be left behind if we don’t offer remote work. This is something that will make the team more productive and give us all more time ...”
This conversation is happening all over America and in many parts of the world. If it hasn't happened in your organization yet, it probably will. More employees are enjoying flexible work environments, with one survey showing 43% of American workers working remotely at least part of the time as of 2016.
Workers are attracted to flexible arrangements because they believe the freedom will help them stay motivated, save their company money and let them get more done. There is an unspoken but clear argument, too: Employees often feel they would enjoy working at home more than having to drive through rush hour traffic to get to the office.
Business leaders are sometimes a little more cautious about embracing this change. Many organizations have invested heavily in perks and offices that make their team members feel welcome and enthusiastic. Leaders often feel more comfortable with being able to see work being completed and knowing they can follow up with workers at any point during office hours.
“How will the work get done if everyone’s at home? What’s the point of even having offices if half the staff will be somewhere else?” are just a few of the questions which tend to run through the mind of many an executive faced with a flex-work proposal. “How can we even build a company culture when the company is all split up by remote work?”
One of the first steps entrepreneurs and owners find they need to take is to consider their mindset when approaching flexible work. We live in a world where time put in and results produced seem closely linked. It can seem scary to lose control of time put in because it can seem it would directly impact results obtained.
This might be a good time to ask what you expect from employees in an eight-hour shift or a 40-hour workweek. Could your team produce the same results in less time? If so, would it be worth paying for the same amount of work? Could you let go of the expectation, in our time-driven culture, that workers “should” work a specific period of time?
Leaders may need to relinquish the idea that putting in a specific amount of time in the office proves a strong work ethic. They may also need to let go of a strong association between quantity and quality. Does the number of hours spent in the work environment automatically result in a higher quality of products or services? What would the workplace look like if workers worked less but produced the same amount? Could all stakeholders support such a solution?
Of course, to make organizations effective, it’s important to put certain safeguards in place. This may mean opening an honest conversation with workers interested in flexible arrangements. It may mean exploring a few specific questions together:
1. Is this a job where remote work is an option? Some jobs are better suited for remote work than others. For example, writing, editing, design and some technical jobs do not rely heavily on being in a specific place at a specific time.
2. Is the specific employee ready to work remotely? Has the employee demonstrated their ability to produce results within the specified time frame? Is the employee a self-starter, and are they problem-finders as well as being problem-solvers? How well do they work with others virtually and in a team? Challenges that exist on-site can easily transfer to off-site work and need to be addressed first.
3. Does the company have the culture to support flexible work arrangements? Expectations, roles and timeframes need to be clear so workers are set up to succeed, no matter where they're actually completing their work. In addition, your company may need to have virtual meetings or have systems set up for continuing to function as a cohesive whole.
4. Are workers in alignment? Remote workers may still need to cooperate with workers on site, and this means leaders need to ensure all employees are in alignment.
Careful, deep listening and honest discussion can help companies create a support network for team members in the workplace and remotely, ensuring both can pull together to create quality results.
Flexible work can have lots of benefits. For workers, it can reduce parenting stress and improve job satisfaction. For company leaders, it can provide a plum benefit to offer new talent and can actually help create a stronger company culture in some ways. Work-at-home arrangements can allow companies to build teams across the country and around the world, using video conferencing to build a common culture. Teams can continue to build a close community with on-site events and regular in-person meetings. Having some workers working from home and some in the office can create an even closer, smaller core team on site.
For many companies, the future is looking flexible — and bright.