Is This the End of Flexible Workplaces?

Why does telecommuting work so well at some companies but appear to have failed at Yahoo! and Best Buy? Is it right for your company—and for you?

By Barbara Frankel


Are flexible workplaces going the way of VHS tapes and the Palm Pilot? I've heard grumblings from several people, mostly women with children, since Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer decided to ban telecommuting and Best Buy told its corporate employees they have to start working in the office.

I was never a big fan of workplace flexibility because I was one of those women who tried to do it all, including going back to work at a demanding job when I had a 4-year-old and a 6-week-old baby. But I had a supportive husband (with a job that eventually paid well), parents who could back us up financially and, therefore, the ability to hire good help. In recent years, working with Millennials who blur the line between office and home, I've come to deeply appreciate the ability to work when I am at my most effective (early in the day) and where I need or want to be.

The concepts of work/life and telecommuting are alive and well—but only for companies that use them correctly. Like any other "benefit," flexible workplaces only help the business if they are put in place with best practices, goals and valid metrics to assess success, and with constant review.

Flexible Workplaces: What Works—and What Doesn't

I remember the days when there was no flextime. Everyone had to go to work at the prescribed time and you never left before your boss did. I recall being a young newspaper editor with babies at home. I was always a fast worker, and I'd finish all my tasks for the day by 5 p.m. Yet I'd sit at my desk doing busywork until 6:30, because that's when my (male) boss left. I desperately wanted to go home—and I wasn't very effective in that last hour and a half—but the culture made leaving earlier career suicide.

There have been many studies on how Millennials (those born between 1982 and 1993) don't buy the 9-to-5 workplace, and how many of them prefer flexibility over higher pay. We all know that with today's technology, those of us who are compulsive email checkers (I am definitely in this group) are wired to our jobs 24/7 and can do our work from anywhere.

Today's question isn't about whether you CAN work from home but whether it is beneficial to your employer. The answer is yes—and no.

Academic studies show telecommuters work more hours and often have increased productivity. Anecdotally, most of us would agree with this. When we're in the office, we get caught up in side conversations and constant interruptions. When we're home, most of us can lock ourselves in quiet rooms and focus, focus, focus.

Three Downsides to Flexible Workplaces

1. Those same studies that tout increased productivity also cite less innovation from teleworkers. This makes sense since the greatest innovation occurs through collaborative efforts of diverse teams, and that requires human interaction—the old bouncing ideas off of each other. The Wisdom of Crowds author James Surowiecki spoke at one of DiversityInc's Innovation Fests! He highlighted the human tendency to interact with people from similar backgrounds and how diversity initiatives enable different ways of thinking in organizations, leading to innovative solutions. If everyone sits at home in those quiet rooms, this interaction doesn't happen.

2. Some people cheat the system. This is what Mayer says has occurred at Yahoo! With a general loose policy on people working wherever and whenever they want, the company has had a whole lot of people taking advantage, collecting paychecks and really not doing much of anything. Some even started their own side businesses. (Mayer's ban reportedly mainly targeted 200 employees who worked at home full time.) At Best Buy, the policy had been "results oriented." So if you made your numbers, nobody cared where you were. Best Buy has been in financial trouble, but new CEO Hubert Joly's focus on improving efficiency, including the telecommuting cutback, is making Wall Street analysts more optimistic.

3. Flexibility without flexibility fails. The companies that really "get" this understand that they can't just have a blanket policy that you can work from home X hours a week if you do this or that job. Look at Deloitte's Mass Career Customization initiative, which creates a variety of models to climb the corporate path.

How to Succeed With Flexible Workplaces 

The companies that are making this work well—Accenture, ADP, Aetna and PricewaterhouseCoopers, to name just a few—have some things in common.

1. They clearly communicate their expectations to managers and workers.

2. They use metrics to assess the engagement, retention, promotion and productivity of teleworkers, and they evaluate gaps

3. They engage their resource groups to promote more virtual interaction. A growing trend in DiversityInc Top 50 companies is groups for teleworkers; these groups enhance the collaborative relationships of employees and allow them to find solutions to the hindrances to effective performance.

4. They continue to innovate and never rest on their laurels. Several companies that have been considered early pioneers in workplace flexibility are looking at ways now to change the model, such as having top salespeople not spend so much time on the road, especially globally.

Sixty-three percent of U.S. companies now offer some degree of flexible workplaces—and ALL the DiversityInc Top 50 companies do. We aren't going to return to the days of yore when you were chained to your desk whether you did good work or not. But it is valid for any company to assess what is working to engage employees so they can perform at maximum capacity.

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