Seemingly everyone agrees that the nature of work, and where it gets done, is changing. As millennials continue to enter the workforce, both the public and private sectors realize the need to change the workplace to meet the needs of this modern demographic.
Millennials value flexibility and work-life balance more than generations prior. They want collaborative solutions that can be used anywhere. But what’s the day-to-day reality faced by millions of Americans in the workplace? How widespread are the options for “flexible work,” and exactly what does that term mean to employers and their employees?
For some answers The WorkSpace Today reached out to Emma Plumb. Emma is the director of 1 Million for Work Flexibility (1MFWF), a national initiative advocating for the broader adoption of work flexibility.
Can you give some background on the 1MFWF movement?
1 Million for Work Flexibility was founded in 2013 by Sara Sutton Fell, who’s also the CEO and Founder of a company called FlexJobs, which is a professional job service that helps job seekers find the best flexible jobs available. Sara is committed to expanding access to flexibility for workers across the country, and she started 1MFWF as an advocacy effort to call for widespread improvements in the way we work through increased flexibility.
On my end, I became an advocate for work flexibility when I was working in a “traditional job” which was very anti-flex: no working from home, and regular lectures on arriving at our desks at 9 am on the dot and not a minute later. My then-boyfriend (now husband) broke his back in a fall and when I asked to telecommute throughout his recovery, my request was denied. I spent the following two years trying to change my employer’s outdated policies, until finally it was clear they weren’t going to budge (and nor was I) — so I handed in my notice and focused on making change on a bigger scale.
I was lucky enough to connect with Sara at just the right time and she brought me on board to help lead the 1MFWF movement with her. We have two main goals with 1MFWF. First, we’re a community for workers who want and need work flexibility — to raise their hands in support of this issue, and to find resources on how to ask for, implement, and advocate for flex.
Second, we’re uniting the many voices already working hard in this space from various perspectives — including companies embracing flex as a business strategy, as well as academic institutions, non-profits, and business leaders highlighting the value of flex for a variety of reasons. We now have more than 100 organizations in our coalition, and we’re proud to include Polycom in this group.
1MFWF is tracking the existing and proposed legislation around flexible working options for Americans. Can you highlight some of the key items?
1MFWF doesn’t endorse any specific legislation, but we want to help ensure that folks are aware of the legislation that already exists or is on the table in this area. It can be difficult to legislate when it comes to flex, because as we often say at 1MFWF, there’s no one-size-fits all solution for all employers and all employees. As a result, much of what we see in this space has to do with ensuring that employees have legal protection when it comes to asking for flexibility (in some form).
In some cases (but not all), those laws also ensure that those requests are taken seriously. None of the laws in place require employers to grant the requested flexibility. For example, the cities of Berkeley and San Francisco give employees this type of “right to request,” as do the states of New Hampshire and Vermont. At the moment, there’s a new bill being considered at the federal level: the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2017, which was proposed in February by Republican Rep. Martha Roby of Alabama. The bill would amend the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 so that an employee could voluntarily agree to receive comp time instead of overtime pay.
While the Society of Human Resources and the Chamber of Commerce support the bill, its many opponents warn that it unnecessarily trades compensation for flexibility, at employees’ expense. It passed in the House of Representatives today (May 2). When it comes to more specifics around implementing flexibility, the majority of U.S. states have policies in place that are specific to state workers — a number of which are decades old.
California’s Telework Policy, for example, dates back to 1990, and proclaims, “A good telework program facilitates temporary limited duty, increases the state’s ability to respond to emergencies, amplifies effective use of new technologies within state service, and improves employee morale resulting in increased job effectiveness.” So it’s interesting to see how government has been formalizing flex in many cases well ahead of the private sector.
Where does 1MFWF see collaborative technology fitting in to support better working environments?
One of the biggest fears around flexibility is that employees won’t work well together if they’re not in the same space at the same time. That fear is largely based on the false assumption that as long as people are in the same space at the same time, they will work well together. The reality is that getting collaboration right takes a concerted effort no matter where employees are located.
Collaborative technologies allow for all sorts of new and interesting ways to communicate that are actually more effective than in-person meetings, which can often be more of a time waster than a boon to productivity. They also allow employees to get to know each other even when they might not otherwise have interacted in person at all — for example, if they are not on the same team, or if they work on separate floors or separate offices.
Naturally that also applies if they are working from home, or on different schedules. In a nutshell, technologies that help people work smarter, collaborate more effectively, and be more productive are good for employees and good for business — and it’s no coincidence that they also enable more flexible work environments.
Some big brands like Yahoo and, more recently, IBM have made headlines for ending or scaling back their remote work options. Why do you think they changed, and what impact does that type of change have?
Both Marissa Mayer who led this change at Yahoo, and Michelle Peluso, CMO at IBM who led this recent change there, came from other environments where face time was a core part of doing business. At Mayer’s former home Google, then-CFO Patrick Pichette noted that when asked how many people telecommute his answer was, “As few as possible.” Peluso, coming from shopping site Gilt, noted in her announcement that being in the same place was part of the “only one recipe I know for success.”
When you’re accustomed to doing business a certain way, and you’ve seen it be successful, it’s very hard to be open minded about other ways to work. And when things aren’t going right, it’s easy to blame the unfamiliar for those failures. But for the hundreds or thousands of employees these types of announcements impact, it’s not so simple. They may have families, or disabilities, or community commitments, or hobbies, or a myriad of other reasons that make working remotely the key to their own personal and professional success. Changes like these are disruptive and potentially career ending for people who can’t just up and move for their job.
These changes also impact recruiting by significantly narrowing the eligible workforce. While it’s true that some flexible workers may not be the most productive, that’s also true of some office workers. Rather than focusing on the bad apples, work should be designed around getting the best performance out of the good seeds.
Great work can happen in all different ways, and the danger is in making assumptions about what works best without taking into account all the various factors at play.
What will the typical workspace look like five years from now, 10 years?
Well, it’s tough to make predictions about the workplace.
Of course we’d love to see that within 5 or 10 years, work flexibility becomes the norm and is adopted as the strategic workplace imperative we believe it should be. However, people have been advocating for this type of change for decades and it’s been slow to come. The reality is that change is hard.
That said, we’re certainly seeing more and more movement in the right direction. We can all help by sharing success stories of how work is and could be better with increased access to flexibility. That’s exactly how we hope the 1 Million for Work Flexibility movement can help, and why we love showcasing how companies like Polycom are setting the standard in this area.