More than 60% of U.S. companies provide some telecommuting option—and it’s no wonder, given the many benefits flex work offers both companies and their employees. Flex work can reduce costs associated with employee absenteeism. It can help attract and retain talent. It can also improve employee morale and boost the corporate bottom line.
So why the change of heart from companies like IBM? According to Bloomberg, companies are reconsidering their policies due to the belief that the collaboration required by today’s cross-functional teams can only be obtained via face-to-face interaction. But that may be oversimplifying the issue, as IBM’s decision comes after 20 consecutive quarters of falling revenue.
Emma Plumb, director of 1 Million for Work Flexibility told TheWorkSpaceToday, “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.”
This assumed correlation between unfamiliar and failure is particularly inherent to finance. In a job function where GAAP and financial reporting laws are slow to change, it can be tempting to believe that the employees on the finance team should work the same way they have for the last decade or two. But the rapid evolution of fintech and cloud computing makes remote working very accessible to the finance team.
The fact of the matter is that the nature of work has changed. People don’t do the same work all day long, every day. We don’t work on assembly lines anymore. While employees need the ability to collaborate, they also need the ability to work independently. It is in solitude where much of the creative work and innovation discussed as a team comes to fruition.
Flexible work, therefore, works best when it’s not an all-or-nothing proposition. When companies treat it like one (in either direction – “Everyone has to work in the office!” or “We’re closing the office, everyone works from home!”) they get dramatic, negative outcomes. For example, companies that force employees to work in the office risk paying the price of too much collaboration, as productivity wanes and top collaborators suffer burn-out.
The best office and flex work policies are, well, flexible! They treat employees like adults, giving them the option to work in a manner that best suits them and creates the biggest benefits to the company. Consider, for example, your introvert employees, who have a much greater need than extroverts for solitude and quiet during the course of the average work day. Allowing introverted employees to choose to work alone and giving them the tools to collaborate when it’s needed actually improves their productivity, mental health, and creativity.
Similarly, allowing employees to choose when and where they work based on the task at hand empowers them to do their best work. Millennials may seek a workspace that fosters competitive collaboration while Baby Boomers prefer to work independently until they need to collaborate, and then they may wish to do so face-to-face. A workspace and office policies that offer the best of both workstyles will deliver the best outcomes.
The biggest objection to remote work is productivity (i.e. “how do I know they’re not just watching daytime television?”) But it’s worth noting that productivity will always be a concern, regardless of where employees work. Yes, there are people who are unproductive when they work from home. There are also people who are unproductive in the office. Managers need to be careful not to assume that because they can walk past an employee’s desk, that the employee in question is being productive. Focusing on output – are they getting the work done – and giving people choices and flexibility will increase employee satisfaction and productivity. Taking away those choices only serves to increase dissatisfaction and inefficiency.
As a final note, consider this prognostication from Plumb: “Flex isn’t going away. We’ll continue to hit bumps along the road, and there will always be challenges as we continue to navigate new ways to work. But companies that embrace those challenges head on and lead the charge will be the ones to come out ahead in the long run.”