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Workplace Flexibility—Are We Bending or Breaking?

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While businesses struggle to stay competitive in an increasingly difficult environment, employees yearn for work-life balance. Are flexible work arrangements a win-win that serves both interests? Or is accommodating greater workplace flexibility too much of a stretch?

Employees’ desire to have more control over when, where, and how they work spans the generations—from Seniors seeking alternatives to complete retirement to Boomers and Gen Y grappling with parenting and caregiving responsibilities to Gen Y searching for an integrated work-life experience. At the same time, employers competing to attract essential talent understand that flexible work arrangements can be an irresistible magnet. But have the limits of flexibility been stretched too far, costing employers more than they gain in return?

Explore all sides below by clicking on each button:

  • Here's the debate
  • My take
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Flexibility sets us apart.
With the Millennials coming in full force, being flexible will be essential to attracting that talent.
Flexibility only goes so far.
If flexibility becomes the new norm, it will cease to be a competitive advantage.
We’re positioning ourselves for the future.
Leadership development is a big issue for companies today. Gen Y and the Millennials are “fluent” in online collaboration and communication, so are perfectly poised to become future leaders of what will surely be a flexible workforce.
Facebook can’t replace face time.
Flexible work arrangements will reduce the leadership talent pool by reducing young employees’ exposure to dealing with people directly, as well as their ability to deal with people (customers, coworkers) who aren’t as “fluent” as they are. Culturally, many struggle with feeling connected, challenging online collaboration to replace face-to-face conversations and the need to build relationships in business.
It’s about more than just attracting talent; it’s about staying up and running.
Flexibility is a strategic move that supports continuity of operations in the event that people can’t get to work (i.e., natural disasters, personal emergencies, huge traffic jams, etc.).
Up and running, maybe, but how productively?
The value of “energy in the room” when a crisis occurs could be lost, which could negatively impact operations. Big Internet companies are concerned about the ability to virtually collaborate and spontaneously brainstorm.
We have the technology; why not use it?
Not being flexible feels backward. The digital (some say postdigital) era has removed many of the technological issues that used to inhibit flexibility—including data security.
We all know security can be an issue.
How many companies have been in the news because of security breaches? No matter how many policies we make or training we give about the risks of data loss or security breaches, it all comes down to the workforce exercising good data management skills.
It frees us from time and distance constraints.
Virtual teams can outperform traditional teams by: (1) enlisting the best talent from any location; (2) reducing project cycle time by shrewd use of a "follow the sun" schedule (i.e., a global team in Boston can work during the day and leave a “to do” list for their Shanghai counterparts to work on while they sleep and vice versa); and (3) tapping diverse input, especially from individuals who work closest to customers in overseas markets.
It’s harder to manage and doesn’t work for everyone.
If the workforce is not prepared to work more virtually, it’s the managers who tend to feel the pain. They become the glue that coordinates individual activities across the team. Often they can come to resent the extra burden, while employees view flexibility as an entitlement.

My take

Tracy Haugen, director, Deloitte Consulting LLP

The debate on workplace flexibility is far from settled, which is why we decided last fall to write about it as one of our 2013 Human Capital Trends. And now here we are, months later, with a story about a company revoking telecommuting privileges making headlines and fueling the ongoing dialog.

Ultimately, it’s a conversation that should start, and maybe end, with what the business is and what it needs. An organization’s sole function isn’t to provide jobs in an environment that employees enjoy. That may be a side benefit or, for some companies, a stated goal, but it’s typically not the primary reason for a business to exist.

Being clear on the business model and strategy comes first. Then comes understanding how the work should be performed to support the business. What is the nature of the work and how can it be done? What are the true constraints vs. historical practices? Considering the issue in the context of business strategy can help moderate some of the extraneous pressures (e.g., “everyone else is doing it”) and can provide solid evidence to justify decisions to go farther in accommodating flexibility or scale back.

That’s not to say that the talent crunch isn’t forcing the issue. Companies are having to rethink what they thought were constraints to flexibility and find creative ways to address both what the business requires and what employees and prospects are looking for. It’s not one-size-fits-all proposition, but rather an ongoing effort to figure out a combination of strategies that can make for a sustainable solution. One positive step organizations can take is to encourage employees to discuss situations that are causing them to seek more work-life flexibility, rather than simply viewing it as hopeless and walking out the door. Make it OK for employees to ask for the conversation and explore options.

I would also encourage organizations to recognize that problems attributed to workplace flexibility may not actually stem from being “too flexible.” Flexible arrangements can amplify other workplace issues, such as poor performance management. Managers might argue that it’s too hard to know what off-site employees are working on and if they’re effectively allocating their time to the job. But the flip side of that is just because managers can visually see employees at their desk doesn’t necessarily mean they know what they’re working on, nor does it prove those employees are productive. If performance management processes are lacking, it’s a problem whether people are in the office or not. Similarly, data security breaches can happen anywhere employees engage in risky practices, technology limitations can hamper performance in the office just as easily as at home, people can be poor collaborators even when they sit right next to each other…and so on.

Accommodating workplace flexibility—or not—is first and foremost about doing what’s required for the business. If it’s vital to the business, as with other pressing business challenges (globalization, innovation, sustainability, data management, compliance, etc.), it can be worth the effort to figure out how to mitigate the risks, capture the rewards, and put it to work.

Related content

Library: Deloitte Debates
Services: Consulting
Overview: Human Capital

 

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