It appears as if the topic of flexible work arrangements will never go away. The technology is there. Employees, especially among younger generations, want more of it. Yet research on the subject continues to disappoint those hoping the idea will gain more traction in corporate America.
A June 2011 study based on data collected by the Dieringer Research Group and nonprofit WorldatWork found that the number of teleworkers — full-time employees working a full workday from a location other than their organization’s office — in the U.S. was 26.2 million in 2010, down from 33.7 million in 2008.
Simple math will tell you that the painfully high unemployment rate has factored into the decrease: A smaller working population will ultimately mean fewer teleworkers. But beneath the numbers lies a more important lesson for CLOs. Training leaders to shift their managerial mindsets toward more open and flexible work arrangements is a must in the modern business climate, where work can be done from virtually anywhere. Experts say improved employee engagement, retention and efficiency is what awaits those who do.
But according to the WorldatWork study, only 21 percent of employers actually train managers on how to successfully implement and support flexible work arrangements. Just 17 percent train workers on how to be successful as an employee with flexible work arrangements.
Why? Because shifting to a flexible work environment has little to do with capability and everything to do with shifting cultural perceptions of when and how work gets done. Certainly for some, implementing a flexible work situation would be out of the question. But most roles, and employees, could be better served by a shift.
Most managers, at little fault of their own, may not know how to manage without a time and place element. The on-the-clock notion is deeply rooted. Managers fear that if they cannot see their employees, they cannot effectively manage them.
“Instead of managing by face time, manage by results,” said Rose Stanley, a veteran HR practitioner and one of the contributing authors to the WorldatWork study. “It’s what we’re supposed to be doing anyway, regardless of where you’re at.”
Jody Thompson, founder of consultancy Culture RX and the co-creator of the Results-Only Work Environment strategy (ROWE), said the problem is that too many employees are worried about receiving permission from their managers on flexible work arrangements. This, she added, creates an awareness problem, leaving many in the dark on if their role could be adapted to flexible work arrangement.
But Thompson is not necessarily a fan of the notion of teleworking anyway. She said it’s still too centered on the traditional 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., Monday to Friday model. Instead of telework, Thompson said organizations would increase employee retention and engagement even more if they abandoned the traditional notion of when work occurs altogether — and let employees do their work from wherever, whenever.
Thompson pointed out that most employees can be reached instantly wherever they are via a smartphone. “So [as a manager] I can always contact you via voice, texting, instant message,” she said. As long as employees are located somewhere on the planet, work should still be able to get done, she said. Unless, of course, certain tasks require meeting with others — for this she recommends a local sandwich shop or cafe.
Still, the central element to overcoming this hurdle in the corporate world is to get managers to adapt to a more results-oriented mindset, Thompson said. Setting up training and policies that create a framework and more awareness of a results-based work environment is the place for CLOs to start.
For managers still fraught with anxiety toward not knowing what their employees are doing when they aren’t in plain sight, Thompson said, “You don’t know what they are doing now” when they are physically at work. She asserted that it shouldn’t matter if work is done at 3 p.m. or 3 a.m., in the office or at a local coffee shop. Results should stand as the measuring stick alone — not time spent at work.
“No results, no job,” Thompson said. “Not, ‘Well I put in 80 hours a week, look at how hard I worked.’”
Yet managers are not the only ones who may need to be taught a different mindset here; the recession may have also dampened the idea of teleworking for employees themselves. With jobs scarce and times tight, corporations are doing more with less. This is creating a workforce that figures putting in more face time at the office might lead to greater job security amid high layoffs and persistent unemployment.
Of employees’ moods during the brunt of the recession, Stanley said, “Employees felt that they needed to be seen working so that they felt more secure not losing their jobs.”
Thompson and Stanley both said training on flexible working arrangement should also be done in a way that still encourages employees to “turn off” every once in a while. Under Thompson’s total results-based model, that would be done at the employees’ discretion.
As with any change, to completely embrace a comprehensive telework or results-based environment will take time. But given how fractured some work environments have become, CLOs looking to train for telework should take the option into consideration, craft a policy and allow employees the chance to benefit.
Frank Kalman is associate editor of Chief Learning Officer magazine. He can be reached at fkalman@CLOMedia.com.