By Megan Headley
More and more offices are employing alternative workplace strategies such as telecommuting and flex time. Whether it’s to recruit or keep a long-distance star employee, or to help a top performer balance personal and workplace duties, many employers are exploring these new workplace realities. As a result, many HR managers are exploring new challenges to employee engagement and productivity. Many are wondering: does “out of sight” of the office mean that your employees are taking advantage of having the world as their workstation?
Not according to WorldatWork, a Scottsdale, Ariz.-based not-for-profit HR association. The organization’s most recent Survey on Workplace Flexibility shows that a majority of surveyed employers reported that flexibility programs have a positive or extremely positive effect on employee engagement (72 percent), employee motivation (71 percent) and employee satisfaction (82 percent). And according to the Citrix Online white paper, “Workshifting Benefits: The Bottom Line,” study after study shows that people who work from home are more productive than their office counterparts due to such factors as: reduced interruptions (no more coffee breaks with morning chatter), more effective time management, being able to work when most productive (when flexible hours are allowed), working longer hours and the fact that these employees feel trusted by their employers.
Despite the benefits, many HR managers, and their higher-ups, find it difficult to trust employees once they begin teleworking and creating schedules that reflect the amount of work produced rather than the time on the clock.
“Lack of management buy-in is the most commonly cited obstacle to the adoption of workshifting programs,” the Citrix Online paper states. “It’s clear managers fear that left unmonitored employees will not work as hard as they otherwise would.”
So what can HR managers do to better ensure that alternative work strategies are not being abused?
Every Situation is Unique
Rose Stanley, CCP, CBP, WLCP, CEBS, practice leader for WorldatWork, says that taking alternative work scheduling on a case by case basis is a good first step for creating an effective system.
“Not every person is right for flexible work arrangements, just as not every job is appropriate for certain flexible work arrangements,” Stanley says. “It will be up to the organization to review these things and to put policies and practices into place that make sense for their organization.”
Take a hard look at the job being done. Consider asking the individual to write a list of their duties to help both worker and employer better understand expectations outside of the office. What type of tools would be needed to make the situation work? How would other workers be impacted? Then, look beyond that. Stanley is quick to point out that thinking outside of the box can sometimes bring out the most creative and productive arrangements.
“Don’t automatically assume that some kind of arrangement won’t work,” Stanley says. She adds an example: “Many times manufacturing companies assume that they cannot allow flexible work arrangements for their lines. But it’s being done now because those organizations were creative, involved the workers themselves to help create the schedule and now they have line workers who can enjoy flexible work arrangements and those workers are more engaged, satisfied and productive—and loyal too.”
Have a System
Even if you’re won over by the benefits of flexible workplace arrangements, it’s important to have a system in place for managing it—much like you have systems in place for managing workers who are present in the brick-and-mortar office.
“Good managers are managing by results,” Stanley says. “They already should know what those employees are supposed to be doing, if not on a daily basis then on a project basis. Accomplishing those tasks is what managers should be focusing on. Encouraging and recognizing work that is completed and completed well is what managers should be focusing on.”
By checking in regularly with all employees—in and out of the office—an HR manager will get a better sense of the type of results to expect from workers.
“Even if you are teleworking only one day a week, it is wise for managers to continuously connect with their employees to check in on how work is going,” Stanley adds. “Connecting” can include such simple questions as: Are you accomplishing your goals? Are there any hindrances that HR can help the teleworker overcome?
“Frequent one-on-one’s with employees and discussions not only ensure that the work is being accomplished, but it also engages those employees and managers more which should be a positive thing,” Stanley adds. “It helps employees (managers included) maintain that ‘line of sight’ that organizations want their employees to have in order to accomplish business goals.”
For that matter, frequently checking in with all employees can show the value of employing a flex-worker who really produces over an in-office 9-to-5’er who isn’t providing the output your company needs.
“Just because someone is at the office doesn’t exactly ensure that they are ‘working,’” Stanley says. “We call that presenteeism and it can be extremely costly. Having a worker ‘present’ that is really not doing their job may be more of a hindrance than a teleworker who is doing their job.
Train the Manager
One way for HR professionals to better manage their flex-schedule employees is to accept that this is new territory and seek help in understanding it.
“Not many organizations train their managers, but we find in our study mentioned earlier that, with training, those organizations actually have a more flexible culture—and that is ultimately where you’d like to see organizations get to,” Stanley says.
Training for these HR managers can include working with management and employees to better understand how to manage by results. However, it also should include training on the technical tools, such as online collaboration tools, IM, VPNs and other ways for employees to maintain a seamless connection with their colleagues at the office.
In fact, all employees should receive this tech training. “All employees should be trained because teleworkers need to know how to use the technology to get and stay connected, how to ensure they are checking in periodically with their managers, but also with their co-workers and customers. You need to create as seamless a system as possible—especially so the customer is unaware of where or how the employee is working,” Stanley says.
If It’s Broke, Fix It
It’s important for HR managers to keep in mind that if they’re not seeing results from flex workers, they have the right to change the policy at any time.
“This should be a part of any policy: the right to terminate the arrangement at any time and that either the employee or the employer can do so,” Stanley says. She adds, “Of course, if corrective action can help fix the problem, then that route may be more productive and help the employee to maintain their arrangement. But not everyone is cut out for certain types of flexible work arrangements. I know plenty of people who say they are not disciplined enough for that. That should be okay and perhaps another arrangement would work better. Putting the power in the hands of the manager would be the best way to handle these situations with HR having the policy to guide those managers.”
In the end, one of the biggest impediments to a successful flexible workplace culture is not fully committing to it. Stanley cautions HR managers against adopting flexible scheduling, teleworking or other strategies simply because competitors are doing it or to appease a must-have candidate.
“Although these things may be legitimate, the point is that putting in flexible work arrangements takes a lot of thought and analysis to determine exactly what makes sense for that organization,” Stanley says. “It really needs to be a strategic business decision after looking at their own workforce and determining their needs. What are the pain points that employees are having and how can flexible work arrangements help? If after that there are other flexible options that may ‘please’ the workforce and the organization is willing to test it out, then go for it. But to do it without a strategic purpose can hinder it and could potentially cause it to fail.”
It’s also important for HR managers to understand and accept the benefits behind the flexible workplace for this strategy to work. It should be seen as a benefit to the business, not just the employee, Stanley suggests. She explains, “Many times managers feel it’s an accommodation for the employee and cannot see the benefit to the business. Once they can see that connection and that senior management supports and encourages it (and we recommend that training include something from senior management that indicates this), then managers start to get on board.”
About the Author
Megan Headley is a freelance writer based in Fredericksburg, Va. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.