If you give your employees smartphones and have an open-office configuration, you have a flexible workplace. The problem, says New Jersey consultant Cali Yost, is that you may not realize it is a flexible workplace and have not trained your staff (and yourself) how to handle it.
"The way we are working is flexible today. If it is used intentionally, it can benefit the organization. But this flexibility hasn't been managed properly," she said in an interview.
A survey by her Flex+Strategy Group found that in 2015, almost all full-time U.S. employees had some type of work flexibility. But most of that flexibility is informal and not thought through. So people who use Skype and FaceTime at home don't consider similar tools for work. They pass around document drafts by e-mail rather than taking full advantage of technology.
The reason is management's fear that some staffers might take advantage of their work flexibility to cheat their employers, cutting their hours of work when out of sight, and otherwise slacking off. Her advice is to stop focusing on the few who will abuse the situation and concentrate instead on the many who can be trusted to use this flexibility in everyone's best interest. Use performance management to keep the slackers on track, as you should be doing anyway. And give the others tools to be more successful with flexibility.
For fearful managers, she offers an optimistic vision as dramatically experienced by one of her clients. The electrical power went out one day, and once it became clear the incident wasn't just temporary, many staff members started to pack up and head for other locations where they could continue their work with laptops and mobiles. Others, who could still be effective without the power, stayed at their desks. Nobody asked permission from their boss because they were accustomed to flexibility and knew there were alternative avenues for working beyond the office. The manager marvelled at how seamless, autonomous and professional the adjustment was, telling Ms. Yost that years earlier, everyone would have turned to him and waited for directions on how to handle the emergency that this time was just a hiccup.
Training for flexibility may seem unnecessary. What's to learn? But she insists a lot, starting with how to communicate with your workmates. When everyone is operating on different schedules and from varying locations, it's essential that each knows their colleagues' patterns and how best to reach them.
Face-to-face encounters are important, so it's vital to be schooled on the alternatives when teleworking, such as GoToMeeting, Adobe Connect, or Skype for Business. She sees employee hesitation with using these platforms. Companies "are coming to flexibility by the seat of their pants," she said. "It's inefficient to not use the technology."
She found that e-mail, Microsoft Word documents and Excel spreadsheets are the most frequently used ways workers keep each other informed of their progress, and workers are inconsistent with how to store this information, which makes it hard to access easily if you work flexibly. The use of collaborative project management technology is surprisingly low, considering how much more efficient work would be if these tools were used. The preferred technology will vary by workplace, but it's available now and your flexible employees need training.
They also need training in what she calls work-life fit since flexibility can increase the number of choices and complications. "You need to figure out what work to get done at home and at work, and how to use flexibility to make it happen," she said. It helps if these issues are discussed by teams, so ideas and situations are shared.
"The manager should not be the arbiter of flexibility," she cautions. "They are the coach-facilitator, helping to make it work." If the workplace starts to fall apart, yes they may have to redirect people. But the focus should be on setting clear goals and providing feedback while employees keep managers informed.
Whatever your organization does, you still have an individual role, she suggests, in making flexibility work. She offers the following advice:
If you are like most people, you believe you can be trusted to do your job, no matter where or how. Let you manager know that, she says, by keeping her or him up to date on your work progress and then consistently delivering.
Learn about the technology that exists in your workplace to help you seamlessly co-ordinate and communicate with your team and customers, regardless of where you work. "Try it. Keep trying until you master it," she says.
If you see others at work who either want to or are currently working flexibly, offer to co-ordinate with them. Keep each other informed about how you can be reached or who will cover. This will make your manager more likely to give support because it's not more work for them keeping tabs and tracking everyone down.
Learn how to be more deliberate about what you want and need to accomplish, both on and off the job. Then think about the small, informal flexible tweaks in how, when and where you work can help you accomplish your goals.
"Flexibility can't be an end in and of itself. It has to be a means to an end to be a success. So what is your end goal? What type of work flexibility – for example, coming in an hour later, working remotely one day, etc. – gets you there?" she asks.
Over all, her survey says our workplaces have changed but we haven't quite kept pace. Deal with it.
Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online work-life column Balance. E-mail Harvey Schachter