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HP Software's community for IT leaders // September 2013
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Kill the time clock

Why flex workers are the new reality—and how they’ll change your business (for the better).

By Joshua Brusse

The traditional workplace is not going to work much longer. True, for some professions, work will largely continue as we know it today, but in many industries, the flex worker is on the rise. Made possible by mobility and other technological forces, the pressures of social responsibility (e.g., greener companies), and changes in how people want to live their lives (work–life integration), flex work will significantly increase in the near future.

Flex workers should not be confused with workers who “work from home,” which tends to mean a standard 9 to 5 day worked at home, or with remote workers, who are people permanently at a geographic remove from a central/branch office. Flex work is at least as much about shifting time as it is about shifting space. Flex workers will work at the office, at home, at a coffee shop—even from poolside on a family vacation—for 40 to 45 hours a week, but not necessarily from 9 to 5.

The trend toward flex work is gaining ground because it’s a good thing. It’s going to make your business better, smarter, and more productive: a recent study found that flex workers work more, and harder, than they do just in the office. Flex work is also an answer to social challenges like equality, greener workplaces, time lost to travel and traffic jams, and the demand for better work–life integration.

When Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer clamped down on the company’s work-from-home policy, citing a need to foster collaboration and creativity, some may have thought workplace flexibility was dead. On the contrary, I have seen creativity and team spirit increasing through flex work. People can work when they’re inspired, take a break when they’re burned out, put in a really long day in a crisis, and then recharge a little when the demand eases.

However, the advantages that can derive from flex work will only materialize if business leaders understand how to make it work, both for their workers and for the success of the enterprise.

How leaders can make it work:

1. Measure results. The number one thing is to change from time-based measurement to measuring outcomes. Many—if not all—professions are about producing an outcome: building or improving a piece of software, delivering products on or before a deadline, organizing a successful campaign before a certain event, running a program to make customers happy. Measuring the outcome of these initiatives is more important—and makes much more sense—than measuring the time it takes to do them.

2. Apply flex work differently for every role. You’ll find it fairly easy to manage a worker whose role is relatively independent. Other roles can require different kinds of coordination. For instance:

  • Flex work for a receptionist is only possible through job-sharing (i.e., two people agree to share one job), and this requires more teamwork and communication to assure 9-to-5 coverage of the desk.
  • Managers might be required to do more “office time” than their reports—though that doesn’t mean the office time can’t be flexible.

In other words, it is important to make sure flex work is applied effectively (and thus differently) for all roles.

3. Create moments to meet in the office. It is important that employees come to the office once in a while. This could be a recurring day and time each week, or occasional “storming/forming” sessions. The flex workers I’ve known desperately want to go to the office once in a while to connect with friends and colleagues—even so, it’s something the manager must actively manage.

4. Make the office a nice place to meet. Adopt a more open, “coffee-shop” layout, with greenery, paintings, good light, etc., so that coming in is a pleasure—as opposed to a place where workers are confined to tiny cubicles. 

5. Build trust among flex workers and between the workers and management. Discuss collaboration tools (instant messaging, web conferencing, etc.). A virtual meeting room works, but not always—certainly not when one part of the team is face to face in the same room and the other part is dialing in. Interaction patterns change: make sure you agree on how performance is measured and how feedback is exchanged in that situation. And make sure development is not suffering because the different interaction is reducing the stimulation for learning.

How flex workers can make it work:

1. Make sure time is set aside for work and for leisure. Make sure both employer and workers’ families understand that flex work is still work. Flex work doesn’t mean workers are always available to their boss, or to their families. Both need to understand the limits, and what constitutes normal procedures.

2. Know when to stop. Don’t foster burnout. Employees should not be working—or be expected to work—around the clock. Flex work still means 40 to 45 hours a week. This requires discipline, strong time management skills, and, last but not least, strong collaboration and communication skills, so that colleagues understand when flex workers are working and when they’re not.

3. Crises are less flexible. There may be certain times—seasonal “crush” periods, the height of a big project—when the same flexibility cannot be afforded. The flex worker needs to be flexible enough to accept that.

A profitable arrangement

Flex work is going to become, increasingly, an expectation of younger workers and your top talent. Smartly managed flex work will deliver great results—but it must be a policy, not a thing that “just happens.” Your management skills will have to grow, and employees will have to improve their self-management and communication skills. The reasons a company embraces flex work must be clear to everyone, as must be the requirements: it may be regarded as a privilege, a program designed at least as much to further the company’s success as to accommodate workers. 

Joshua Brusse has more than 20 years’ experience in all aspects of running IT as a business. He consults with HP enterprise customers regarding strategy, governance, service lifecycle management, and organizational design and transformation. This is the first of three weekly articles on the future of management that will be posted at Discover Performance.

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