IBM has been in the spotlight these days, shining a light on workplace flexibility. Known as a pioneer of the work-from-home phenomenon, IBM recently mandated its employees to relocate to a regional office or find another place to work – all in the name of improving collaboration and productivity. At the same time, we’re seeing other companies like Adobe being lauded for rolling out new flexibility options.
So what’s the right approach for flexibility in the workplace? Honestly, I’m struggling with the question. IBM made it clear that people in offices are “more engaged” at work – and they have more data than most on the subject, which we’d all love to see. I do know that flexible work hours present a central conflict for CEOs worldwide. Myself included.
The fact is that both presence and absence have real merits. I think (and Limeade Institute research agrees) that it all comes down to trust. Companies need to trust their people, and vice versa. Once trust is established, watch the well-being, people and business results steer the ship.
CEOs who trust employees – who value them as people, who see them as the engines of innovation – will always lead by getting out of the way. They see the importance of autonomy, purpose, mastery, and helping people get “in the flow.” This is the most aspirational part of any innovative company.
If trust is there, then flexibility can flourish. I know my best ideas come to me when I am not at work – in the shower, on a walk, when I wake up and stare at the trees outside. I’m sure this is the same for my employees.
But there’s the practical part too. Many jobs just require presence. Do you want your barista, dentist, mechanic or receptionist taking a few hours off to innovate? Production systems require constant presence and predictability to be efficient. And even in industries or jobs where flexibility can work, there are times when it’s much easier to have a quick standup meeting to address issues in the moment, rather than shooting off yet another email. It’s agile and collaborative to see the right group of people face-to-face right now. I’ll admit I sometimes catch myself gritting my teeth when it’s 4:30 and the colleagues I want to meet with have left to battle their commutes.
Whose problem is that?
Non-millennials like me even struggle with our legacy fears. My earliest jobs – spreading bark mulch, painting houses, bill collection, offered hourly (and if we were lucky overtime) pay that rewarded presence, not innovation. It was at times a demotivating “butts in seats” mentality I couldn’t wait to escape. But it’s also the way things got done. And our presence effectively made us hold each other accountable. . We laughed at “trust but verify” – but we also knew that violating the company’s trust would get you fixed or fired.
Even when I moved into more white-collar work, I was taught the merits of “managing by walking around” – a tactic that keeps managers and employees connected and informed. It’s how informal mentoring and knowledge transfer happens. Not everyone likes learning by reading posts online. And no CEO stays in touch if she spends her life sequestered in the Corner office.
I sometimes get a call from one of my sales people in the field saying, “will you please just walk over and find so-and-so – I can’t get a hold of him and I need to talk now.” I love doing this. Heck, I even still talk on the phone.
If you over-index on attendance, though, your mind closes a little. If you think this way, and don’t see people working, it’s easy to assume they’re not as productive. Or they care less. “95% of success is showing up,” we were told. We were told wrong. ”Butts in seats” is, of course, moralistic and fundamentally irrelevant to modern work.
I know my teams are working hard – whether they’re at their desk, on a bus, at a coffee shop or working from home. I trust them. I want to embrace and promote a culture that recognizes the well-being of employees and provides them flexibility. I know this keeps my teammates more engaged. I know it’s the right thing to do. Giving and earning trust is hard, important work.
Data will guide us on ever-better ways to manage and inspire people. The best companies will reap the results of working through this paradox with open eyes and trusting hearts.
What main benefits does your business see from flexibility? Share in the comments below!
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