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Posted on Sun, Oct 10, 2010 : 5:57 a.m.

The business case for flexible workplaces

By Dianne Marsh

Workplace flexibility designed around the needs of individuals is a relatively new concept, easily dismissed as providing no tangible benefit to business. That's clearly not the case: Business can benefit from going beyond the traditional flex time and casual Fridays.

I spoke at TEDxDetroit last week about workplace flexibility, or what I'm calling the New Flexible. The New Flexible recognizes that individuals have very different needs when it comes to workplace flexibility. The hardest thing about providing a flexible work environment is in letting go and empowering people make their own decisions about how, where, and when they will work.

 It all comes down to trust. Trust your employees to make good decisions, and they will reward you with loyalty and results. Let's explore a few ideas about what you can do.

Create a culture where experimentation is welcomed and where failed experiments are accepted as learning experiences. If you don't have this, people won't innovate. If you set expectations around adopting things that work and learning from failure, you will be supporting a culture of doers, where the employees are motivated to see the company succeed and prosper.

Acknowledge that employees can structure their workdays in a manner that allows them to get their work done efficiently while accommodating other aspects of their lives. Intrinsic motivation is a very powerful driving force, significantly more powerful than any pressure you can apply. When employees are in charge of determining how best to accomplish their jobs, they will find a way to excel.

In our company culture, we've had a lot of different experiments. One was in paired programming, where two developers work together on a problem. In most traditional settings, this involves sharing a keyboard, monitor and mouse and sitting next to one another. That really works best when you always pair, but our developers decided that there are times for pairing, and there are times for working independently, based on the task.

As you simplify the bureaucracy in your company, you will recognize situations where you were rewarding behaviors that didn't make sense. Instead, rely upon internal motivation and self pride to drive your employees.

An example of unintentional behavior is seen around many sick policies. Many companies have a paid time off policy that combines sick days and vacation days. What we've noticed is that employees see this as one big pool of vacation time, and they don't stay home when they're sick because it "wastes vacation time." Unfortunately, it means that people come into the office and spread their germs around to everyone else.

Our sick policy at SRT Solutions is simple, "If you're sick, please stay home." This means that not only do people stay home when they're sick, but they often also work from home when they feel like they might be coming down with something and as they're recovering. Our staff doesn't take advantage of "unlimited sick time." If your staff does, then perhaps the solution isn't in creating a draconian sick policy, but rather in rectifying the bad hiring choice.

If you question whether or not having a lenient sick policy would work in a large company, consider Netflix. Their PTO policy is even less stringent than ours. In addition to not keeping track of sick time, they don't keep track of vacation time. If you want to take a vacation, you just make sure that your work is covered. Netflix isn't a huge company, but it's definitely large enough to demonstrate that flexible workplaces aren't limited to 20-people companies.

As you increase the flexibility and reduce the bureaucracy at your company, you will decrease the waste, which gives you more time to focus on providing a great product or service.

One procedure that we saw as waste was the annual performance review. We initially felt that a year was too long between reviews, and so we tried to do them quarterly. We were falling into the typical trap of providing a list of questions for employee and manager to answer and discuss. Yet, that isn't really how we run our business. We talk to our employees all of the time, so we know about their strengths and weaknesses.

Recently, we decided to abandon the performance review, and we're in the process of working with each employee to put together a personal development plan. This will be driven by the employees themselves, and they will have an opportunity to let us know where we can help them to grow. Without exception, we're all glad to have abandoned the traditional metrics and bureaucratic, time-consuming process.

So what happens when you have someone who takes advantage of this new flexibility? Don't panic. And by that, I mean don't create procedures and policies to address the misbehavior. Talk to the employee, and let that person know that the behavior was inappropriate.

 If you have a company culture that appreciates the flexibility, your employees will apply peer pressure to ensure that one person doesn't ruin things for everyone. It's not employees against management; we're all in it together.

Traditional centralized decision-making severely limits the ideas and innovations your company can create and leverage. Real flexibility is about enabling your employees to help you continuously improve your business.

Dianne Marsh is co-founder of SRT Solutions, specializing in custom software development and technical customer mentoring.


Mon, Oct 11, 2010 : 6:43 p.m.

"abandon the performance review" -- That is an interesting concept. It is time consuming, and oftentimes afterwards, I wonder... was the time spent really worth it? I think management feedback is important, but are formalized forms really necessary? I think not. You just need proactive managers. Let us know how the experiment goes!

Shari Aponte

Mon, Oct 11, 2010 : 11:42 a.m.

Excellent points, Dianne. I really enjoyed the column. Technology is another factor that enables workers to be more mobile. Managers and businesses will need to learn to let go and trust their workforce. My company, Regus,, a provider of flexible workplace solutions, has extensively studied the impact of a flexible workplace model on a business. Not only is there significant cost savings in terms of a reduction in property expenses, but employee productivity goes up as well. It really is a win-win scenario for businesses and employees. For a business looking to provide its employees with some added flexibility, Regus is awarding a professional office in the U.S. for one year. Program details can be found at