Flexible work linked to productivity, engagement: Surveys

But obstacles include traditionalist managers, performance management concerns
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 11/16/2015

Since the mid-1990s, the City of Calgary has offered several flexible work options to employees, including compressed work weeks and job sharing. And since 2008, the 15,000-employee organization has offered a formal telework program, according to Joy Reneker, human resources advisor in the wellness division.

“When we first started telework, it was mostly about work-life balance and environmental savings; now, it’s more about space savings and things like that... And certainly the business case around attraction and retention of employees, satisfaction and loyalty, that kind of thing, is a factor in our flexible work options — we want to be an attractive place for people to work and we want to provide the flexibility for people to manage their lives, basically, as well as contribute to the organizational goals.

“We really believe that… productivity normally goes up or at least stays the same — we don’t have any concerns about productivity decreasing because of these flexible work options.”

Flexible work arrangements are still popular with many employees, judging by recent surveys, with links to increased productivity and engagement.

More than three-quarters (78 per cent) of employees highly value the ability to access work from outside the office, and 70 per cent would leave their job for one that offers more workday flexibility, including the ability to work remotely more often, according to a survey by Softchoice.

Sixty-two per cent of the 1,700 North American full-time employees surveyed believe they’re more productive working outside the office, and 61 per cent (48 per cent in Canada) prefer working the equivalent of an eight-hour workday broken up over a longer day, rather than in a single 9-to-5 block.

Another Canadian survey of 1,000 people by Stone-Olafson found millennials will make up almost 50 per cent of the workforce in five years, with 41 per cent feeling they would be more productive if they had the flexibility to work in different places.

And in the United Kingdom, among employees who work from home, 39 per cent said they are more productive there compared to being in the office, while 42 per cent are just as productive and 15 per cent are less productive.

Forty-one per cent of the 2,004 workers surveyed said they waste at least a half-day a week on unproductive office tasks such as meetings, administration and micro-managing bosses, found What’s Killing UK Productivity? which recommends giving staff “freedom to switch from office tasks to personal time” to have a “motivating impact.”

Given the various findings, why are high-profile companies such as Yahoo and IBM clamping down on workforce flexibility? 

It’s possible they were further down the path of flexibility so it was easier to pull the pendulum back as it had swung too far, said Giselle Kovary, president of n-gen People Performance in Toronto.

“I can see where organizations have said, ‘Well, we want to pull back a little bit, we recognize the pitfalls of too much flexibility without the right kind of guidance.’ Although I’m not sure if the Yahoo strategy has worked and I question that when you give people flexibility and then you remove that — there can be some drops in engagement.”

Leadership issues

No doubt there are challenges. Consistent execution of a flexible workplace program is one of the biggest issues with leaders and employee themselves, she said. 

“Bob in his department can implement it with his team but Jane in the other department doesn’t — she could but she chooses not to. Those employees in different departments talk to each other and then there’s grumbling and disengagement — for sure that happens.”

A lot of managers admit flexibility sounds fantastic but they still want to see people working, said Kovary.

“There’s still that notion of bums in seats and they feel that (flexibility) is a privilege to be earned, not something that should automatically be bestowed on everyone. So that notion can be in direct conflict with employees... and increasingly so younger employees that have an expectation of this kind of flexibility.”

Trying to create flexibility in the workplace is a manager-controlled program, which is why it doesn’t work, said Jody Thompson, co-CEO of CultureRx and co-creator of the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE) in Minneapolis, Minn.

“We’re putting managers in a conundrum of not only trying to manage work but manage people’s time and place. And when you put managers in that position, you create even more of an authoritarian culture, not an opportunistic culture, and people become more like your children than adults,” she said.

“We’re stuck in a 20th century vortex of stupidity where we think we have to manage adults and say, ‘Oh, look at what a great manager is, I’m allowing Suzy to leave early.’ Whatever — Suzy should get to frickin’ decide when she can comes and goes, she’s 38 years old... That’s the problem, it’s not that we can’t be flexible; it’s that we should get to be autonomous and be responsible and answerable and self-governing and independent. It’s 2015, not 1952.”

The City of Calgary faces similar challenges when it comes to managers and workplace flexibility, said Reneker.

“Some of our business units are very, very receptive to it because they’ve always worked in a flexible, trusting environment; whereas some of our business units work in quite a different culture and it’s a lot more challenging for them to just get their heads around the idea of ‘How do I manage people that I can’t see every day?’”

But many skeptical managers are willing to give it a try on a pilot basis, she said.

“Working at home is definitely the one that has the biggest stigma attached to it in people’s minds, so that’s the one we spend a great deal of energy talking about, you know: ‘Let’s figure out how we can break down these barriers.’”

The city does a lot of education, providing learning opportunities and various checklists for both supervisors and employees to basically start the conversation, said Reneker.

“We’re not mandating it, we really want people to have a conversation around it and talk about those bigger issues of trust and measuring by results and things like that, and trying to get over that stereotype of ‘Just because you can’t see me doesn’t mean I’m not working.’”

One of the greatest ways to make these programs stick is to work with the HR team and do strategy around crafting it in a way that gets buy-in from the senior leadership, so it’s communicated from them and promoted and modelled, said Kovary, adding it’s about giving guidance to leaders on how to walk the talk.

“We need to be prepared to support and coach and help those leaders that may not be as comfortable implementing it to do so effectively.”

It’s about having managers manage the work, not the people, and having them be really clear about the measurable results of the work, while dealing with performance issues, said Thompson.

“We have to manage performance, not tardiness and old-fashioned 20th century notions, and we have to put managers in a position of coaching performance and let people manage their own time and place against what their measurable performance goals need to be, and let them step up to the plate.

“People don’t need to be managed, people need coaches and they need to be clear about what their measurable results need to be and they need a coach to help them, and I think people can manage their own time.”

It starts with the leadership, said Pablo Romero, director of employee experience at Habanero Consulting Group in Calgary, a provider of enterprise-level employee portals, which offers flexible work arrangements.

“If the leader doesn’t hold those values, it’s very hard for everybody else to believe in them and to live them,” he said. “And then, obviously, (it’s about) creating the culture and environment for those values to thrive, and the hiring of the right people, those self-motivators, the people that get your purpose and your vision.”

Then it comes around to coaching and mentorship, being very clear on the expectations and everybody’s accountabilities, and performance management, said Romero.

“The vulnerability that we’ve created in our culture and that trust and openness has really allowed us to thrive this way. Don’t get me wrong — there’s times where people change or we might have missed something in the hiring process, but it all works itself out, and as long as the leadership supports it and we have the clear expectations and accountabilities — that’s important.”

Habanero’s 75 employees know what they need to do, he said.

“We all know what we’re expected to do on a project or internally, and we don’t have fixed hours — if people need that extra hour in the morning or need to come in early to leave early, we’re all adults, we just trust each other,” he said. 

“What we try to create is harmony, and with that harmony, you’re able to do the foundational things you need to take care of yourself but also be productive and I think that creates a lot of engagement for our employees.”

Many employers explode at the thought of opening up the “Pandora’s Box” of workplace flexibility, taking a doom and gloom view, said Kovary.

“But the reality is that performance issues are performance issues... so if you have a high-performing individual and you create the right conditions where there’s flexibility, there’s nothing to suggest that they’re not going to be just as high-performing, if not more high-performing. If you have a low performer and they have performance challenges for a number of reasons — it could be engagement, rational or emotional, it could be lack of skill guidance, knowledge, whatever it may be — then that might be exasperated by flexibile arrangements or it may be hidden so, yes, you need to have proper management skills.”

The question is: “Do you care where people get their work done and how they get it done if they’re getting it done and exceeding your expectations?” she said.

“If process is really important, which for many traditionalist organizations it is, for them if it’s process and it’s structure and it’s linear and and ‘You have to do it this way,’ then yeah… that full flexibility’s not going to fit well with your culture.”

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