One of the common refrains I hear when I talk about increasing flexibility in the workplace is the concern that “it would only work for certain people.” This observation is typically followed by one of two claims:
- We need workplaces to be fair. It wouldn’t be fair to have some people work under different rules than others. Therefore, we can’t make any changes to the way we do things.
- We need workplaces to be productive. If we let our employees who need constant supervision have more freedom, they won’t get anything done. Therefore, we can’t make any changes to the way we do things.
I think these arguments are flawed, and it’s worth looking at them a little more closely.
In support of fairness, the case is often made that certain jobs (administrative roles, for example) could not be performed remotely, and that it would be unfair to people in those positions if other people were allowed to work by different rules.
I agree that fairness in the workplace is a critical goal. But workplaces can be fair without being equal.
In an equal workplace, everyone would abide by the same rules as to where and when their work gets done, that’s true. But by that logic, in an equal workplace, everyone would also have the same titles, the same salaries, the same roles and responsibilities, and so forth. An equal workplace would be a very strange and ineffective place, and I think we would be hard-pressed to identify any organization that could be characterized as “equal.”
But in a fair workplace, differences in staff titles, salaries, and roles are all part of the picture. Similarly, differences in the way that work gets done and where that work gets done can also be encouraged. But in order to ensure fairness in conjunction with those differences, a few things need to happen, including:
- New rules must be created with an open mind and an unbiased perspective. Immediately assuming that certain roles preclude flexibility is putting the cart before the horse. My husband is an arborist, which means that he must climb trees to do his work. But that doesn’t mean that all his work has to take place in trees. His clients don’t climb up into the trees with him to discuss their tree problems; those conversations take place firmly on the ground, and often by phone or over email. He doesn’t write quotes or invoices while sitting on a limb 50 feet in the air. There are components of his job that can take place in a variety of locations and at varying times of day. With a fresh point of view, it’s possible to find aspects of virtually any job that could have some leeway in where and how they are performed. And a little flexibility can go a long way.
- Once rules have been created with an open mind, they must be clearly communicated. When workers don’t know what the rules are, they can’t be expected to adhere to them. That’s when problems arise: staff will interpret the rules differently and suddenly fairness goes out the window. Communication is critical.
We can continue to insist that all staff have to follow the same arbitrary policies, but not in the name of fairness. You don’t foster fairness with blanket edicts that treat different circumstances in exactly the same way. You foster fairness by ensuring that individual circumstances are addressed according to their individual requirements.
In support of productivity, the case is often made that there are always a few employees in every workplace who need the boss looking over their shoulder to keep them in line, and that therefore it would be unproductive to foster a more flexible work environment because those employees wouldn’t get anything done.
I agree that the workplace must be productive. But we are designing systems around our lowest performing workers instead of around our highest performing workers. That’s bad for productivity, and bad for business.
A recent report from Leadership IQ, Job Performance Not A Predictor of Employee Engagement, highlights exactly this point: in 42% of their research base of thousands of organizations, the lowest performing workers are the most engaged at their jobs. More specifically:
- Low performers are the most motivated
- Low performers are the most likely to recommend their workplace to others
- Low performers tend to be praised for their efforts while high performers go unrecognized
- High performers don’t feel they are in control of their career success.
Another Leadership IQ study of 70,000 workers found that 87% of them report that working with a low performer makes them want to quit their job. And 93% report that working with a low performer actually decreases their own productivity. These numbers strongly suggest that our current workplace policies are doing a great job of building a poorly performing workforce.
We can continue to insist that staff who make the least contribution are watched closely and carefully, but not in the name of productivity. You don’t maximize productivity by squeezing a few extra ounces of it out of your least productive employees. You maximize productivity by giving your most productive employees everything they need to flourish.