Words of Wisdom: The Evolution of Workflex

Today’s workers can choose when and where they work. That’s good for them—and for employers.

By Iliana Castillo-Frick November 21, 2017

My career in HR has been long, challenging and exciting. I’ve been fortunate to have worked in several industries, including manufacturing, financial services and higher education. When I started in HR in the early ’80s—when “personnel” was evolving into “human resources”—people worked according to the schedule set by their employers. Workers generally had no flexibility to tend to personal responsibilities. Things sure have changed.

My first employer was a subsidiary of National Gypsum Co., a large manufacturing company where employees’ productivity was measured by the number of units they produced. To my general manager, a person’s physical presence was considered the best way to gauge that the work of the company was being done, even though it wasn’t clear that that was true. No thought was given to off-hours shifts as a supplement or an alternative to the base schedule. It was simply not how the company operated.

Flexibility Then

That was when workplace flexibility meant that employees were free to work late whenever they needed to. Unless it was a holiday or they were sick or on vacation, they were expected to be in the office from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. I remember speaking with managers about what they perceived to be “employee issues”—such as individuals requesting time off to leave early to attend their child’s Little League game or take their dog to the vet. The workers were willing to come in early or work through lunch to make up the missed time, but their managers weren’t interested in giving them any latitude.

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Where We Are Now

Today, HR champions telework and other programs that give employees more control over when and where they work. This isn’t altruistic. Rather, business leaders have come to realize that they benefit from flexible work policies through:

Lower overhead. To run a profitable business and meet stakeholders’ expectations, it is crucial for companies to find ways to reduce costs. When employees work remotely, companies don’t need as much office space, saving thousands of dollars annually.

A smaller carbon footprint. Telework reduces energy consumption—utilizing less gasoline for commuting, for example, and less energy to heat and cool commercial buildings and office space.

Increased productivity. On average, employees working remotely spend more time working, less time eating lunches out, and little or no time commuting.

Better retention. Workers who telecommute can be at home for their children and still be able to work, which in turn decreases costs for leave benefits and increases the likelihood that they will stay on the job. The same goes for younger generations of workers. They are willing to work hard but at the same time are driving the demand for flexibility. Such work arrangements will make them happier and more engaged over the long haul.

Improved management. Employees who have the flexibility to deal with personal responsibilities are more engaged and productive, and thus easier to manage.

For employees, the benefits are many as well:

Autonomy. Flexible schedules allow people to work when it’s convenient for them.

Efficiency. Workers with flexible schedules can better deal with personal responsibilities.

Savings. Remote work dramatically lowers and sometimes eliminates commuting costs.

Tax write-offs. Some expenses, such as for the cost of maintaining a home office, can provide teleworkers with tax advantages.

What Changed

In years past, flexible work schedules were not common at most companies. Then, technology ushered in a new era. Without the advances of the past 25 years, telework on any scale would not even be possible. New multimedia tools have allowed us to significantly improve our internal and external communications. Today, we can deliver massive amounts of vital business data to the other side of the world in the blink of an eye, making it vastly easier and more efficient for people to work outside the office. This in turn has led to increased credibility and trust among employers in the concept of flexible work.

As important as advances in technology are, business practices have also evolved. As a result, employees encounter far fewer hurdles to workplace flexibility. For example, decision-makers and team members have become more comfortable with sharing information electronically, which would have been nearly unimaginable not too long ago. Business leaders have increasingly embraced policies, like telework and flextime, that empower workers. And companies have encouraged employee connectivity and engagement, which flexibility can foster.

As with virtually all programs, the success of any workplace flexibility arrangement depends on the effectiveness of your HR operations and your organization. You will need to develop a guiding strategy and pilot, as well as to coordinate and monitor your programs. And in the early going, of course, there will be a learning curve for managers as well as employees.

Working It Out

Several years ago, we hired Arnold (not his real name), an employee who worked a portion of his week from home, despite limited experience as a remote worker. Ann (not her real name), his supervisor and my direct report, was not entirely comfortable with the arrangement. While there were procedural guidelines in place for supervising remote employees, Arnold felt that Ann lacked trust in him, and Ann was concerned that Arnold was either not well-suited to remote work or incapable of meeting expectations in general. For weeks, neither Arnold nor Ann adequately expressed these concerns to the other.

Out of Ann’s frustration, the pendulum then swung. She went from monitoring Arnold perhaps too closely to having only sporadic contact. Through conversations that Ann had with peers and with me, and as a result of more-thorough and more-targeted interactions with Arnold, she came to realize that excessive control was not the answer. She also recognized that empowerment does not mean abandonment. Over time, they both grew in their respective roles, and Arnold’s performance qualified him for a promotion.

Ultimately, Ann realized that excellent performance by both supervisors and subordinates—within either a flexible environment or a more traditional work structure—at its core requires accountability, ethical behavior, respectful and positive relations with all employees, open communications, problem-solving, and other touchstones.

Workplace flexibility is not right for all employees or all organizations. But my career experiences have taught me that, when used to its best effect, it improves the effectiveness of individuals, groups and the organization.

Iliana Castillo-Frick is vice provost, human resources, at Miami Dade College in Miami. Previously, she served in senior HR roles for BankUnited and Bank of America.

Read more Words of Wisdom from seasoned HR leaders.

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