Three Ways Business Leaders Are Ensuring Flexible Work Programs Are Successful

By Lisa Rabasca Roepe, Contributor

It was once called an “alternative work program,” whereby companies allowed employees to work where, when, and how they wanted. Today, the concept of working from home has become mainstream—a recruitment tool, even—with many companies supporting these programs with policies, tools, and technology from near and far.

According to a benchmark study by Global Workplace Analytics, a research-based consulting firm, 62 percent of organizations said it was important to give employees flexibility in where they work; fifty-three percent reported the same for when employees could clock their hours. Accordingly, organizations are shifting how they evaluate employee performance.

In fact, 76 percent of organizations said that it’s more important to evaluate non-traditional employees (those that work outside of 9-to-5 hours or outside of the office) based on work results rather than when or where they chose to complete their tasks.

And while smartphones allow communication at all hours, said Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, she noted that office policies around alternative work programs haven’t necessarily kept pace with technological advancements. As technologies that support remote work environment expand, Lister said, it is actually well-thought out workplace polices that make these programs successful. Below are three factors to consider when building and managing alternative work programs.

1. Write a Clear Framework

It’s not uncommon for companies to “put their toe in the water, and then find out another company is recalling telework and change their policy as well,” Lister said. It’s also not uncommon for flexible work programs to be applied unevenly across the same organization, a phenomenon author and sociology professor Stephen Sweet explains in his book, “Changing Contours of Work: Jobs and Opportunities in the New Economy.”

It’s due to this inconsistency that writing clear policies is an essential hurdle when it comes to rolling out alternative work programs. “Unless you’re going to say everyone can work from wherever they want, there will be [the feeling of] haves and have-nots,” Lister said about crafting the framework.

The policy needs to include clear criteria for who is eligible to work remotely. For those who don’t qualify, Lister said companies can offer other types of flexibility, such as the option to work a compressed work week or stagger their hours in the office.

“When people are given the potential for flexibility, it improves their attitude and engagement, and improves their work,” she described. (In fact, 62 percent of respondents reported in a recent FlexJobs survey that they have left or considered leaving a job because of lack of flexibility.)

According to Sweet, it’s important to be fair and transparent about how the policy is crafted. He said managers should take the approach of asking why an employee shouldn’t get to work off-site. “That’s a different conversation than, ‘why should I allow you?'” he said. When employees have the opportunity to demonstrate that they can efficiently work off-site, Sweet explained, it eliminates the perceived injustice that other coworkers are allowed to work from home.

A clear framework is also essential for those conducting the work offsite. For example, remote employees need to be clear on how to deal with IT issues when they’re away from the office. “You can’t leave people hanging when they get the blue screen of death,” Lister joked. She advocated for being clear about whether remote employees need to bring their devices into the office when they have an IT problem, or where they can access outside support.

2. Create Universal Standards

Determining how to evaluate remote employees is often another stumbling block employers face. “Employers don’t trust people to work untethered,” Lister said. Yet, in reality even if someone is working at the office, she stated, it can be difficult to discern productivity. (Lister points to the highest viewership of YouTube videos being during working hours as an example of potential lapses in on-site productivity.)

The biggest mistake many managers make, she said, is to assume that on-site employees and remote workers should be evaluated using different metrics. Regardless of whether an employee is working around the corner or around the globe, it’s best to develop agreed-upon goals and metrics for each employee that outlines what they will accomplish each week, month, and quarter.

For Sara Sutton Fell, founder and CEO of FlexJobs, proactive communication, time management, and creating a clear understanding of goals and milestones are all “best practice” management skills that become more important when managing flexible workers. Companies should train managers on how to manage these flexible workers, she added.

In addition to individual outcomes, Fell recommends companies pay attention to measurable data like client satisfaction, projects completed, worker satisfaction, retention and turnover, diversity, operating costs, and carbon footprint. For example, in addition to employee productivity and engagement, Dell has found that its Connected Workplace Program also directly improves the company’s bottom line as well as its impact on the environment. Results include saving millions of dollars in real estate costs, saving over $12 million in fuel costs, and avoiding over 35,000 metric tons of CO2e per year in the U.S. alone.

Fell added that, while it’s been reported that 80 percent of companies offer some kind of formal or informal flexible work options, only three percent measure the productivity, performance, and engagement of those options to determine their return on investment.

3. Emphasize Security and IT

Some companies are so causal about flexible work programs they often forget to teach employees about commonsense security best practices, Lister said. But employee behavior is often the biggest security risk to organizations.

In fact, according to Dell’s 2017 End-User Security survey, 45 percent of employees across organizations admit to conducting unsafe behaviors throughout the workday. Best security practices should be part of the training protocol, Lister explained, in addition to onboarding programs that help employees better understand the different ways to work when they’re away from the office.

“If you want your remote employees to be successful, you need to think through how to teach employees about productivity, security protocol, and how to manage their day,” she explained.

Employees who work remotely should be required to take a security training program to learn the importance of strong passwords, why their home WiFi should have a password, why they should lock their computer screen when they aren’t using it, and why they should be cautious about using public WiFi networks, Lister asserted. (Case in point, according to the Dell End-User Security survey, 46 percent of employees admit to using public WiFi for work.)

She explained that companies are also better off once they determine whether or not employees can use their own technology while working from home. Based on her experience, about 25 to 30 percent of companies allow employees to use devices they personally own. Even if it’s frowned upon, many employees will use their own equipment, especially if their personal technology is more advanced and a higher quality than the technology provided by the company.

For Sweet, the most successful alternative work programs have clear policies with management that consistently emphasizes to employees that flexible work arrangements are valued, and proper training is provided. Rather than thinking of flexibility as an accommodation for employees, he recommends companies focus on how alternative work programs improve the bottom line by increasing employee productivity, engagement, and performance.