Flexibility is Good for Business

August 27, 2009 by Rose Cook

Flexibility is good for business.  Period.  
When you give today’s “knowledge workers” a reasonable amount of freedom and flexibility to direct their own work (schedules, work location, how they get the job done, etc.)  and provide them with the right technology tools too, what happens?  Productivity goes up!  This is certainly good for business.

This is no longer the Industrial Age, folks!  We are not talking about farming the fields or making widgets on the production lines.  And, admittedly, not every job can accomodate flexibility.  However, many of today’s professional roles involve transferring knowledge and information, and collaborating and communicating with others.  Does this have to be done in a row of cubicles or in glass-walled conference rooms from 9 to 5?  Not anymore. And, especially not so in the current global marketplace.

Blackberries, wi-fi, Webex, IM, texting, email,… oh and yes, the phone,…you name it.  Various communication methods exist and many are quite efficient and effective (especially for geographically-dispersed workers across multiple time zones).  Compare this to your traditional in-person meeting that could take days or weeks to schedule.

Please don’t get me wrong.  I’m a huge proponent of human interaction and face-to-face meetings.  Nothing can replace that.  You’ve heard me talk about the value of relationships and networking, so you know I’m passionate about this topic.  Face-to-face just doesn’t need to happen 40 hours a week or between 9 to 5.  In fact, often you can get more done (on certain tasks) when you work alone, away from the distractions of “the office”, and often during non-traditional business hours.  Get more done?  Hmm….  Now, that’s certainly good for business.

The most famous case study in favor of flexibility is that of Best Buy and their “results-only work environment” (ROWE).  In this business model, employee performance is measured by results and output, rather than hours worked.  In practice, employees control their own calendars and are free to get their work done wherever and whenever they want.  They are not required to be in the office on a set schedule.  As the writer states in the Business Week article called “Smashing the Clock,” … “Work is no longer a place where you go, but something you do.”  Brilliant.

Arguably, this was a risky proposition for a large company, and I’m sure implementation was not an easy road.  But so far, so good.  Since the program’s start, average voluntary turnover has been reduced drastically.  Productivity has gone up an average of 35% in departments that have switched to ROWE.  And, employee “engagement”, which measures employee satisfaction and is normally tied to retention, is also up.  Again, good for business!

Speaking of retention, tomorrow’s successful companies also need to pay attention to their up and coming workforce.  Pretty soon, Baby Boomers (born 1946-1964) will be out, Gen X (born 1965-1978) will be the bosses, and Gen Y (born 1979-2000) will be a major part of the workforce.  “Paying your dues at the office,” “putting in lots of face time to get that corner office,” – this just won’t fly!  Gen Y workers watched their parents do this, and then subsequently watched them join the ranks of the unemployed!

Gen Yers define success much differently than their Baby Boomer parents.  They aren’t motivated by seniority or big titles.  They want meaningful and challenging work.  They favor measurable results over face time.  They want work-life balance.  They demand flexibility!  If we want to recruit and retain the best talent, flexibility must be part of the package.

So, how do we change the culture in today’s corporate environments?  Well, I challenge each of you to make a change in your own small way.  Like the Best Buy case, which got started as a “stealth” operation by a few passionate mavericks from the “bottom-up”, culture change doesn’t always have to be endorsed from the “top-down” (though it might make it easier.)  In your own department or work group, go ahead and lead by example, “walk the talk” and show others how flexibility can lead to reduced turnover, increased productivity and employee retention.

Good for business.  Period.

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