Flextime has matured into a mainstream concept for business and IT, but making it work effectively in your enterprise can prove tricky.
By Samuel Greengard
Over the last decade, mobile technology and cloud computing have transformed the business landscape. Professionals, including IT staff, often find themselves answering e-mails outside at 2 a.m. and reviewing progress reports at their child's soccer game. Virtual work is the new normal—and flextime is increasingly a key part of the picture.
"Today there is an expectation that employees will have greater freedom to work when and where they want," observes Stewart Friedman, director of the Wharton Work/Life Integration Project and a professor of management at the University of Pennsylvania. "It is an exciting but also somewhat painful time because we are just beginning to learn how to take advantage of these tools."
Here are five ways that CIOs can put flextime to work more effectively:
Flextime started out primarily as a way to accommodate working mothers, points out Laura Sherbin, executive vice president and director of research for the Center for Talent Innovation. "There was a desire to retain these workers, but there were struggles with the programs. However, in some cases, flextime was viewed as a way to accommodate one group of workers at the expense of another." The concept has since evolved to incorporate a broader segment of the workforce. However, the transition from Flextime 1.0 to 2.0 hasn't eliminated the fundamental issue. "A potential problem occurs when some employees have the opportunity to choose their working arrangement and others do not," she says. Friedman, author of the forthcoming book, Leading the Life You Want: Skills for Integrating Work and Life (Harvard Press), argues that there's "too often an assumption that certain types of jobs cannot fit a flextime model. The reality is that just about everyone needs flexibility and there are usually ways to build it into a job."
Allow employees to formulate their own plan.
"It's critical to allow people to develop their own flextime plans and practices," Friedman says. "This puts the focus on what they need to accomplish and what results they need to achieve." Nevertheless, it's also wise to establish a formal organizational framework for flextime and build in processes and practices that allow workers to present a plan to their manager or team. A program must provide a high level of flexibility—with the goal of encouraging rather than discouraging the use of flextime. "It's not about face time or counting the hours worked. It's ultimately about outcomes," he explains.
Focus on performance and results.
Purge the mindset that results are validated by employee attendance, which is a type of thinking that continues to haunt many organizations. "You have to be willing to give people the freedom to pursue the goals. You really have to be clear about what matters and how you're going to assess results," Friedman says. Well-intentioned but bad policies also enter the picture. For example, a company may ban employees from checking e-mail at night or on weekends. "But nights and weekends may be when a person wants to work due to childcare or other issues," says Friedman. It's one thing to educate people about disconnecting and taking time off, he says, but it's another thing to mandate how and when they do it. Modeling the right behavior is also critical. For instance, if a boss spends nights, weekends and flex days in the office, others will likely mimic this behavior for fear of not being seen and appearing less engaged. "We need to change the thinking to a work-life balance model that doesn't regress to the old way of thinking," says Sherbin.
Build out technology, systems and a framework to support flextime.
Today's devices and nearly ubiquitous connectivity make it easy to work remotely. However, this doesn't necessarily translate into an optimal environment for communication and collaboration. It's wise to examine IT systems—from unified communications and storage architecture to cloud applications and mobile apps—to ensure that people can get their jobs done remotely. The line between an office and a virtual environment should be nearly invisible. "Remote work should seem flexible and natural, not rigid," Sherbin says.
Flextime and virtual work should be an extension of the enterprise.
Sherbin cautions against taking the concept too far. "People often need time at the water cooler and they often do best when they build relationships with coworkers and colleagues," she notes. Flextime may also mean rethinking how meetings and other events take place—and finding ways to bridge physical and virtual staff more efficiently. In the end, "it's all about understanding that there are optimal times to be in the office and structuring the work around a more nuanced and evolved approach to flextime and virtual work," says Sherbin.
Ultimately, Sherbin says, "the thing that executives should focus on is that employees consistently say that their most productive time is working outside the office."
About the Author
Samuel Greengard is a contributing writer for CIO Insight. To read his previous CIO Insight article, "How to Keep a Customer for Life," click here.