Is Flex Work Blurring the Boundaries Between Office and Home?

By Bill Leonard October 16, 2013

With the proliferation of smartphones and Web-enabled devices, our concepts of where and when we work have changed radically. And even though technology offers workers unprecedented freedom to do their jobs beyond the confines of traditional office spaces, could this newfound flexibility actually be a paradox by extending work hours and eroding family time?

The answer is unclear and depends on the way businesses and their employees use flexible-work policies according to the organizations’ culture and management processes, experts say.

“Often businesses will have flexible-work policies in place, but managers will still be inflexible in their expectations of employees who telecommute,” said Ken Matos, senior director of employment research and practice at the Families and Work Institute in New York City. “Just because a person has a smartphone or laptop and can be reached 24/7 doesn’t mean they should be expected to be available around-the-clock.”

Matos said employees and managers must clearly define boundaries and expectations for those who telework. “It’s not unusual in telework circumstances that a manager will call or send e-mails when an employee is supposed to be off the clock, and it’s only human nature to want to respond to these messages as quickly as possible,” he observed. “The idea is to set expectations for what are acceptable response times and clearly spell out the circumstances and urgency when contacting employees outside of normal work hours.”

The New Normal

A constant barrage of work-related messages is becoming a “new normal,” according to recent research from the Center for Creative Leadership (CCL). An August 2013 CCL white paper, Always On, Never Done? Don’t Blame the Smartphone, reported the results of a survey of approximately 500 executives, managers and business professionals, more than three-quarters of whom used smartphones for flexible-work situations. Respondents who had smartphones used them for work purposes an average of 13.5 hours per day and nearly five hours on weekends for a total of 72 hours per week.

“The use of smartphones to stay connected to work 24/7 is so common that it’s now considered the ‘new normal,’ ” wrote Jennifer Deal, Ph.D., author of the white paper. “The lines between personal and professional lives are blurred if not completely eliminated.”

Yet survey respondents blamed poor management processes and disjointed communication, not technology, for the long hours.

“While technology may be a logical scapegoat, it is actually just a new-age mask for an age-old problem: poor management and poor leadership,” Deal noted.

Some managers claim that telecommuting provides employees with too much freedom, which creates work inefficiencies.

“But it’s a myth that telework is inefficient and ineffective—telework doesn’t create management problems, it reveals them,” said Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics and the Telework Research Network in San Diego.

Changing Focus

To address concerns that flexible-work programs are completely erasing the lines between office and home, a growing number of employers are taking a good hard look at what practices work best for their organization, according to Matos and Lister.

“Clearly, flex work is the new paradigm,” said Matos. “So employers are shifting their focus away from ‘Why should we do this?’ toward ‘How do we do this right?’ ”

Boundaries are needed because long hours and unreasonable expectations of being available around-the-clock can quickly lead to burnout. Overworked employees tend to make more mistakes and have bad attitudes that result in poor customer service.

“We all need our space and personal time to decompress and recharge, but when your home is your office and vice versa, then it becomes a real challenge to separate the two,” Matos said. “The best and most successful flex-work programs clearly set and respect the boundaries between work and nonwork hours.”

Don’t Ignore the Inevitable

Employers that have resisted or simply refused to consider flexible-work options aren’t facing up to reality, according to Lister. She said rapid changes in technology and expanding online capabilities make it inevitable that every business will eventually include some element of telework in its processes.

“It’s reaching the point that businesses are now posting work schedules online, and employees check their schedules and report their hours worked with their smartphones or personal electronic devices,” she said.

In addition, requests for leave, expense reimbursements and benefits enrollment are typically done online. Even though these Web-based services are quick and efficient, companies should think about potential wage and hour issues—especially if hourly or nonexempt employees have to use electronic devices to check work schedules or read electronic messages from their supervisors.

“If hourly employees are responding to e-mails outside their normal work hours, that time could be compensable,” Lister said. “Federal and state employment laws just haven’t kept up with the reality of today’s workplace and the impact of technology. Therefore, complying with the laws while competing in today’s digital-dependent marketplace is a challenge for most employers.”

Responding to the Challenge

Some employers have adopted work-flex policies that have strengthened their organization and enriched the lives of their employees.

“We have concentrated hard on balancing work/life issues in our organization,” said E’Vonne Coleman-Cook, chief operating officer of the Durham, N.C., Convention and Visitors Bureau. “While access to improved technology like instant messaging is changing the way we communicate and there is certainly encroachment of the office into home life, we’re not viewing this as a challenge, but, instead, we’re treating the issue with resolve and ensuring that we strike an appropriate work/life balance.”

To achieve that balance, Coleman-Cook said businesses should consider taking three key steps to establish a successful work-flex program. First, employers must clarify expectations with all workers and always stress to new hires the importance of the organization’s core values.

“And you can’t just say what the core values are and then leave it at that; you must live them every day,” she emphasized.

Second, employers must hold supervisors accountable. Supervisors must fully understand expectations and respect employees’ need for time away from work.

“We train our supervisors and make it very clear when it is appropriate to contact their subordinates outside of the normal work hours,” Coleman-Cook said. “We all understand the need to work until the job gets done, but we also must realize that usually things can wait until tomorrow. Occasionally, there will be emergencies, and we all understand that. But you can’t operate in a crisis mode all the time; it’s not a healthy or smart way to run an organization.”

The third and final step is identifying individual expectations for employees and what their work objectives are.

“Then everyone must live by those expectations,” she said.

Coleman-Cook believes that an organization that follows these steps will be successful in providing employees with the flexible-work situations they want and in keeping technology or other factors from further blurring the lines between home and office.

“It’s really something you have to live by and focus on every day,” she said.

At the 2013 North Carolina Society for Human Resource Management Conference, the Durham CVB was, for the sixth time, named a winner of the Alfred P. Sloan Award for Excellence in Workplace Effectiveness and Flexibility. The Sloan Awards are part of When Work Works, a research-based initiative that highlights how effective and flexible workplaces can yield positive business results and help employees succeed at work and at home. When Work Works is a joint partnership between the Families and Work Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management.

“We don’t work so hard to have the best possible flexible-workplace policy to win awards,” said Coleman-Cook. “We do it because it works. Our program has helped boost our organization’s productivity while improving the health and happiness of our employees. And, frankly, you cannot ask for more than that.”

Bill Leonard is a senior writer for SHRM.



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