It's well understood that flexible working can be good for employees and good for the bottom line. In global research by Regus, 72% of senior business people said flexible working practices such as choice over working locations and hours lead to increased productivity.
Over six in ten (63%) said these practices make employees more motivated and energised. Flexibility also has a lower environmental impact and facilitates good work-life balance.
Being flexible over working locations and hours also boosts staff retention. In another global study of professionals, this time by Accenture, almost two-thirds (64%) cited flexible work arrangements as the reason for staying in their current job.
Beware the downside
There's a thin line, however, between ‘flexible working’ and ‘comfortable working.’ While the former is win-win for businesses and staff, the latter benefits employees more than it does employers.
'Comfortable' sounds harmless enough, but other labels for it could be 'coasting' or 'complacency'. It can lead to:
- failure to innovate or anticipate technology shifts
- loss of competitive edge
- flatlining or falling productivity
- health & safety and IT security complacency and, possibly, breaches
Beware: Unlike flexible working, comfortable working doesn't lead to greater revenue generation or profitability.
Ten action steps
How can employers offer flexibility without letting staff go into autopilot? Here are ten steps to consider:
#1: Measure performance by output. Be sure staff understand that hours at the desk are not necessarily the same as performing well. Managing by output also encourages flexible and remote workers to work productively.
#2: Use annual reviews and objectives to set targets that are attainable but stretching. Rewarding staff who achieve these targets. But introduce procedures and accountability for workers who do not.
#3: Ask staff members themselves how best to incentivise them to be more productive. Some staff prefer financial incentives; others might prefer perks such as extra leave.
#4: Encourage responsibility and avoid micro-managing. The former promotes innovation and continuous improvement; the latter impedes it.
#5: Accept that innovation can lead to mistakes. Creative thinking may involve taking some calculated risks, and this is not possible in a culture of fear. As the late Steve Jobs said: "Sometimes when you innovate, you make mistakes. It is best to admit them quickly, and get on with improving your other innovations." The most productive work cultures focus on iteration, rather than fault-finding.
#6: Staff should never be too busy or too senior for training and Continuing Professional Development (CPD). Some managers also advocate cross-training – for example, occasional job switching. Gaining insights into other areas of the business improves collaboration and encourages cross-fertilization of ideas.
#7: Don't let job titles and descriptions hold people back. For example, someone with the title of 'Account manager' or 'Production manager' may not think they have any role in business development. Encourage a culture where everyone thinks they should promote the business.
#8: Consider a change of scene. Changing the office layout, energizing the decor, hotdesking – these can all encourage people to collaborate and team-build with new people or work in new ways.
#9: Recruit staff who'll bring energy, as well as skills and experience. When Google hires, it looks for something it calls 'Googleyness', which includes a 'bias to action.'
And to quote Steve Jobs again: "When I hire someone really senior, competence is the ante. They have to be really smart. But the real issue for me is, Are they going to fall in love with Apple? Because if they fall in love with Apple, everything else will take care of itself. They'll want to do what's best for Apple, not what's best for them, what's best for Steve, or anybody else."
#10: Lead by example. If you opt for comfortable working yourself, your staff will follow. This doesn't mean you have to work 24/7, but it does mean having a visible commitment to doing better.
About the Author
One of Europe's best-known entrepreneurs, Mark Dixon founded serviced-offices provider Regus in 1989 and serves as its CEO.