Flexibility: Stretching Traditional Notions of Work

 “The key to sustained happiness, health, and longevity is flexibility.”
--Ev Duran

There is a parable here in Afghanistan about a mule and a well that speaks to the value of flexibility in our lives.  Having fallen into a shallow well, an Afghan farmer's mule brayed incessantly while the farmer and his son considered their options.  After weighing the value of the animal, the son pointed out that burying the old mule might be the best choice.  As they started to shovel dirt into the well, the mule brayed louder in protest, then suddenly...quieted down.  The farmer looked into the well and noticed, to his surprise, the mule was shaking off each scoop of dirt and then stepping upon it.  As they continued to push dirt into the well, the mule rose higher and eventually was able to climb out of the well . . . on his own.

The point our Afghan partners attempt to express from this parable is that life will shovel dirt on you.  The challenge is shaking it off and taking a step up...and out.  With this in mind, each of us is capable of escaping the deepest of wells if we only choose not to fail.  Remaining flexible is key to our ability to shake it off and step off in a new direction.

The same can be said for our idea of work.  How many of us find ourselves in a well where the dirt continually rains down on our heads?  What if we took advantage of our perspective to find ways to capitalize upon the situation to make it better for all--our teammates, our leaders and ourselves?  Challenging typical notions of what defines the "workplace" and "work" is well within the job-jar of all of us, regardless of our position in the organization.  In doing so, we have the ability to expand boundaries and redefine our ecosystem to everyone's advantage.  The following ideas may be worth exploring for your environment as ways to capitalize upon flexibility for your team:

  1. Flexibility in our work environment creates productivity.  We all crave flexibility in the workplace, especially with the merger of traditional gender roles and balancing work responsibilities with those at home.  We may find ourselves worrying about picking up children before daycare closes or getting them to football practice on time, thus leaving important projects for the next day or missing that one important call from a client.  How many employees would be far more productive knowing they could achieve work/life balance and meet the demands of both their professional and personal lives without undue distractions? Carol Halsey, founder of Business Organizing Solutions, found employees who were able to complete tasks without interruptions or some level of stress increased productivity in their workplace by as much as 50 percent.   Think of how much time we already waste at work because we have to be in an office setting for 8-12 hours a day.  Rather than hanging around the water cooler, coffee-clutching with office mates, or reading a book at lunch, work place flexibility could allow employees to make their own schedules.  This could mean starting work earlier in the day or working later in the evenings, thus allowing time to fit in activities that a traditional schedule might not otherwise allow.  The increasing ability to balance work with home life can increase job satisfaction which, in turn, increases employee retention.  If employees are allowed to control their interactions throughout the work day and relieve some of the pressures of a busy home life, the company could reap productivity rewards…with smiles as a fringe benefit.
  2. Flexible work environments lead to a higher quality workforce.  Companies strive for quality and diversity among their workforce – not only to attract more clients, but also to draw in motivated employees eager to succeed.  Allowing for flexibility in the workplace broadens the pool of available personnel for businesses to pull from--around the globe.  Imagine a company based in California having the ability to hire a top-qualified candidate from Italy or even New Zealand?   According to a study done by the Canadian Center for Occupational Health and Safety, offering employees the ability to work remotely provides companies higher qualified personnel that are more culturally and socially diverse, greater employee satisfaction, and increased initiative and teamwork among employees.  Additionally, the flexibility of working remotely eliminates the traditional bureaucratic hierarchy and allows companies to implement flatter, decentralized organizational structures, which often draw in more motivated and energized employees.  Zappos recently took this approach, eliminating the traditional management roles and replacing their chain of command with self-governing “circles.”  These “circles” allow employees to get more involved in how the company is run and eliminates a lot of the rigidity that stifles creativity and flexibility.   Even Best Buy attempted, and later revised, a similar approach by transitioning all 4,000 corporate workers into a new “results-only work environment” (ROWE), which allows employees to work any hours, anywhere, as long as they get their work done.  As technology continues to dominate the workplace, we will see more companies experimenting with more flexible and less rigid work environments.
  3.  Flexibility controls costs.  Of course everything comes down to the bottom line, because what good is flexibility without some level of cost savings?  So it is not only about what is best for the employee…what does the company gain?  By allowing employees to work from home, companies can cut their own costs – fewer workers in that traditional office environment requires less organic resources in terms of real estate, office space, desks, supplies, and facility costs such as heating and electricity.  Also the flexibility to work from home yields fewer sick days, thus increasing productivity and decreasing turnover, which all reap higher profits.  It’s interesting to note that these cost savings are not only for smaller companies—large companies can get in on the action, too!  Numerous studies by large companies tout the cost-benefits of a work from home structure: at IBM, 40% of the workforce has no official office; over one-third of AT&T managers telecommute.  Additionally, nearly half of all employees at Sun Microsystems work from home – the company estimated a saving of $400M over six years in real estate costs by eliminating the requirement to work in an office.  We submit that eliminating the traditional requirements of an office structure can reduce the operating costs on a large scale, allowing companies the potential to invest more into their employees and strategic company growth.

So by now you may be asking yourself, “If workplace flexibility yields more productivity, higher quality employees, and cost savings, what company wouldn’t want to implement this strategy?”  It is definitely safe to say that working from home is not for everyone or every organization.  However, for those with a high level of self-discipline, it can be very rewarding, improve job satisfaction and quality of life, and reap significant benefits for their organization. It is also worth pointing out that employers need take steps to keep in touch with the employee who is working from home to ensure open communication at all times and that employees are completing their assigned projects.  Harprit Singh, CEO of Intellicomm, found that in order for a work-from home position to be effective, “it should emphasize the benefits of work-life balance to employees and equip them with the necessary technologies to be productive in a remote environment. Employers not only need to ensure that the teleworking employees do not miss out on the important matters at the office, but also remain conscientious about their productivity.”

As more employees seek a work/life balance, and as technology continues to improve—thereby shrinking the world we share--we might expect to see more companies implement strategies to provide flexibility in the workplace and reap the benefits that come along with it.  Of course, another option is to just keep scooping dirt into the hole . . . and see what climbs out.

This article was co-authored
by Matthew T Fritz and colleague,
Heather L. McGee [Twitter || LinkedIn]

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