Is flexibility at work good or bad?

GogglesAccording to an article in The New York Times, I.B.M. has been trying out a new vacation policy, in which fixed vacation rules are replaced by informal agreements between employees and their immediate supervisor. The guiding principle is that the work must get done. As long as this is the case, employees can take as much vacation as they want, even on short notice.

Itís every workerís dream: take as much vacation time as you want, on short notice, and donít worry about your boss calling you on it. Cut out early, make it a long weekend, string two weeks together ó as you like. No need to call in sick on a Friday so you can disappear for a fishing trip. Just go; nobodyís keeping track.

The company does not keep track of who takes how much time or when, does not dole out choice vacation times by seniority and does not let people carry days off from year to year.

It’s not all peaches and cream and the article also mentions some downsides to this flexibility:

  • Peer pressure to not take too much vacation
  • Checking email and voice mail while on vacations
  • Managers sometimes ask employees to cancel days off to meet deadlines

On the whole, I.B.M. employees like the arrangement and according to an internal survey, it is one of the top three reasons why employees choose to stay there.

This kind of arrangement is a sign of the times and we’ll be seeing much more of it. Just to mention a few examples, Californian software company Motek has done it for years, Best Buy are experimenting with ROWE, a Results Only Work Environment where only your results are measured – not the number of hours you work and the Brazilian company Semco let employees set their own working hours.

But is this much flexibility a good thing or a bad thing? Does it increase employees’ freedom or does it simply make it easier for bosses to manipulate and abuse their serfs?

That depends on who you ask. Richard Reeves in his book Happy Monday comes out completely in favor of it. Whereas Richard Sennett in The Corrosion of Character describes it as a terrible situation that is ruining our work lives.

Here’s my take: Happy companies naturally embrace this flexibility. In happy companies there is enough trust between managers and employees that it will the flexibility will be used to make people happy at work, and not to make them work more.

It’s true that it does put more responsibility on employees’ shoulders to actually take some vacation time, but seriously – we’re adults here, right? We should be able to tell when we need one/want one and do something about it.

Like I always say, if you want to be happy at work you must:

  1. Know yourself. If you don’t know yourself well enough to tell when it’s time for a vacation, then who will?
  2. Speak up. If there’s something you need, say so. Don’t passively wait for your boss to figure it out.
  3. Do something. Act on it!

In bad, abusive workplaces however, things are not that simple. Here it is normal to create all kinds of explicit and implicit pressures on people to work more and more, and in this case, flexibility simply becomes a license to abuse employees. Here, setting vacations according to contractual obligations or union rules offers way less flexibility, but it at least ensures that you get some vacation time at all.

It’s also true that different people like different levels of flexibility. Some people like to leave vacation planning completely open, others prefer to have it fixed years in advance. A truly flexible system accommodates both kinds of employees.

I do believe that flexibility is a good thing in and of itself and it’s a hallmark of all the happy companies I know that they offer very high levels of flexibility. I think flexibility comes from mutual trust and trust comes from being happy – as psychological studies confirm.

So if you want to have high levels of flexibility in a company, make sure you have high levels of happiness and trust first.

Your take

How much flexibility does your workplace give you? Is that a good or a bad thing? What makes it good or bad? Please write a comment, I’d really like to know.

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24 thoughts on “Is flexibility at work good or bad?”

  1. Flexibility at work is s GOOD THING!
    I don’t get to choose my vacation, but I do get to chose how I spend a lot of my time at work. As long as I do my job the boss doesn’t care what I actually do here. Because of this I was able to polish my programming skills and now my boss is doing Computer Assisted breast implants selection. ;) None of this would have happened if I would have done only what I was hired to do.

  2. Generally speaking, flexibility at work is a wonderful thing. I get to set my own hours where I work, and my manager is generally very flexible regarding skipping out early on Fridays as long as I’ve worked my 40-hour quota and projects are under control.

    In my industry, which is service-based, we still bill clients hourly, so I understand why it’s important for us to still fill out timesheets for billable time. We also still have to fill out for unbillable time, though, which is really just to prove that we did in fact hit the magical 40-hour mark. The only problem with this mentality is that we are forced to stick around when there is literally nothing to do. The nature of our business is that we do on occasion have days (maybe even weeks) of downtime.

    A person can only surf the internet so long. To me, it would be more productive to let us go home and accomplish things on a personal level rather than just being a warm body in a cube at work. If my employer were to take that attitude, I can tell you I’d be much happier working the extra hours sometimes required when a project deadline is looming. I’ve found that flexibility from employers leads to more willing flexibility from employees, which in turn makes everyone at work happier.

  3. whoooaaaaa… CHO… we’re going to have to reign you in!!! what are you doing?

    what are you going to suggest next… that people be given meaningful things (and they find meaningful workplaces themselves) that they want to go to … that they _want_ to work at because work and “the rest of life” do not require you to have different sets of ethics and values!

    i remember a star trek episode from looong ago… spock was speaking to someone and commented, people don’t work for money any more, they are here because they see value in the betterment of the universe by what they are doing…

    what an amazing concept… not having a system driven by greed… sure, the new system might be driven by false pride, but only if we make it so… the current system needs a revolution (not just an evolution!)

    i think what IBM is doing is faaantastic… its the start of a new era… it will raise questions (of companies) like:
    * we better make work interesting because otherwise, people will be on a semi-permanent holiday and only turn up because of fear of loosing their pay cheque… – we want them to come for good reasons, not for fear of bad ones!

    * we better have collorabative environments where people can encourage each other as all of them share a common vision (and they not “forced” to work to *the managers* vision)

    * we better revolutionise the way we hire… motivations, values and ethics take on a much central role compared to experience and hard statistical stuff…

    The Mage (CIO – Chief Indian Officer!)

  4. The key to flexibility at work is consistency between managers and the policies between departments. Flexibility still contains rules, whether peer pressure, stated, or in a policy.

    I prefer flexibility. But the corporate culture needs to support it the right way.

  5. hi scot,

    i have often found that in trying to achieve consistency and policy, one only ends up with a system taking care of the “lowest common denominator”. A policy is just that… a policy, for all… but aren’t we all individuals with individual needs…

    Perhaps some “framework” needs to exist so that abuse is not possible, unless of course what you are doing is completely and utterly results oriented, and no results, no pay! doesn’t matter how you get there… etc etc etc…

    i personally do like a basic “framework” but really try to stay away from “policies” – they could be seen as the same thing… but framework almost implies a certain sense of flexibility and policy seems to to define regidity!

    Also, why do you believe consistency is important? I often find that in trying to be consistent, a company is virtually never able to deliver what i might find valuable… eg. we have a consistent policy of having birthday cakes… i really dislike that… i’m not a very “social” person… and i find it stressful to have my birthday celebrated at work!!! small example i know, but it extends to all parts of consistency!

    the mage.

  6. in addition to my previous comment… i was discussing this blog with a colleague of mine… (who also really enjoys writings from the CHO :) and he pointed out a very important thing…

    “give the finance team flexibility and they will all get stressed out and quit!!!”

    i guess there are leaders and there are those that want to be lead… or rather, in some aspects of our lives, we are leaders and in others, we _want_ to be led… in setting working times, the finance team (full off accountants and the like) don’t want to be given a choice… its stressful to them!

    i looove the concept of flexibility… but take me to the supermarket… and please please please, don’t give me the choice of 10 different brands… i don’t care! it stresses me!

    mage.

  7. How is accountability measured here in? Most organizations are weary about employees abusing the leeway provided rather than extending a warm welcome to proposals which can help productivity go north!!!

    Any pointers at that?

  8. hi ramanan,

    i guess “accountability” can still be measured, just like it is measured at the moment… with KPI’s (key performance indicators)…

    Usually a business will have a set of ethics/values:
    * we will conduct business in a truthful manner
    * we will work with integrity
    * …

    then there is person/role specific things:
    * system uptime must be 99.9% or greater
    * all servers to be patched and kept up to date… patches to be applied within 3 days of coming out!
    * …

    There are hardly KPI’s that say:
    * you will arrive to work by 9am
    * you will not leave work before 5pm
    * …

    I think most companies already recognise that its “the job” that needs to get done… so focus on measuring “the job” … the time things seem to be lingering due to control issues… and the lack of trust that employees will be creative and proactively productive (although i don’t see why that could not be a KPI) and control issues and insecurities managers might have…

    I have been rather strong in my words there… there is an element of communication… if there are no common times that are consistently overlapping, then you might have people that work in the same company that never or sedom see each other face to face… and so far, i have found that face to face, you can solve/resolve a lot of issues that take 10 times longer via any other means…. i think technology is coming out that will take away communication barriers and enable us to communicate effectively without needing to physically be in the presence of someone (technology such as virtual words and hologramic projections… but that is really another topic).

    So in short, i think KPI’s (with the gateways of current ethics/values can be used to cater for accountability).

    How does your organisation currently measure accountability?

    the magic smurf.

  9. Flexibility is a two-edged sword. Depending on the relative bargaining power of labor and management in a workplace, it can go either way.

    If workers are at a bargaining disadvantage, as they are more often than not, I’d expect “flexibility” to mean the worker is flexible enough to always be available when needed. IBM’s stipulations that “the work has to get done” and that “managers may ask employees to cancel days off to meet deadlines” make it pretty clear to me which way that sword is cutting in this case. It’s pretty easy to say “Oh, you’re free to take as much vacation as you want, as long as we’re staffed to cover it,” and then cut staff so much that everybody has to cancel vacations to compensate for understaffing.

    Like where I work, management says, “Oh, you’re absolutely expected to take your unpaid 30 minute lunch break,” and then cut staffing until we are simply unable to take a break because it would mean literal abandonment of the patients. Then when you put in a request for pay for the half-hour, management says, “No, you should have taken the break–it’s company policy.” They know god-damned well we CAN’T take a break, but having a policy on paper that we have to creates plausible deniability for them. In reality, the top management probably thinks skipped breaks are an indicator that they’ve cut staffing just the right amount. Kind of like yellow lights going off on the andiron, under lean production, indicating that the system is stressed just enough to be operating at maximum efficiency.

  10. hi kevin,

    it appears you are in a place where they have worked out that your values won’t let you leave patients unattended (because it doesn’t appear there is anything _physical_ tying you to your desk during lunch hour).

    The reality of the situation is also that most people can’t simply walk away from their jobs – there are bills to pay and children to feed!

    However, there are always things one can do to try to change the situation…

    * have you had a chat to the doctors about this?
    * have you had a chat to the other staff about this?
    * are you organising a strike?
    * are you putting in for stress leave?
    * are you writing to the industry heads (medical authorities etc?)
    * do you have a union you can go to?
    * are you proactively looking for another role?
    * are you sticking a sign at the desk saying, back in 30 minutes, but the doctor is in … door => way?
    * are you just turning up late (and taking that 30 minutes in the morning?) and leaving the doctor to it…

    you could do any/all/more of these depending on your situation and inclination…

    I’m not at all saying that you are not doing something about your situation… but there are numerous cases out there where people “feel” they are bound, don’t want to make the effort themselves to do anything about it (other than complain) and then expect that magically, someone will come from up above and make them king of the world…

    In your case, it definitely sounds like management is abusing the fact that your values and ethics to squeezing every last ounce of work from you… but get them back in another way – work on their values and ethics… surely they have some???

  11. oh and btw, i would encourage you all to also read: “Hungy Thinkers” – a blog post by mr.organix!

    http://www.probobo.com/blog/2007/07/11-hungry-thinkers.html

    I think having flexibility at work would be fantastic… but yes, the business would have to ensure that it is hiring “hungry thinkers” (otherwise, the system can indeed fall over into a heap with it becoming new ways for one group to take advantage of the other).

  12. Alexander,

    I think it’s this simple: Choice is always a good thing, so long as you’re not intimidated by having the freedom to consider all kinds of alternatives. Any company (or individual) that empowers others – assists them in finding their own, unique way – whether that be through flexible work arrangements or wellness programs or personal coaching, is doing the next right thing.

  13. I think this is a great idea… for some groups. As mentioned before, there are teams that need the rigid structure in order to be comfortable. For us, (and this applies so often) being in customer service (helpdesk) requires us to be tied to our desks and cover specific times. Its not as simple as taking a day off when you want because the coverage may not allow for it. Our staffing is kept very tight, to the point that one person missing affects our results. I wish it were a different case, but that is often the problem in this company. That’s not to say we don’t get vacation time. Company policy basically gives you more time off the longer you’ve been here. I get 5 weeks off a year, whether its a sick day or vacation time. Sounds great, doesn’t it? The big problem is we have a “use it or lose it” policy and the deck is stacked in the company’s favor.

    I think it would be great to utilize flex vacation like you’ve noted. If they were willing to spend the money on the technology, it would not be difficult to allow an employee to work from home for a day, allowing them to take care of personal issues. Unfortunately, companies large and small, just don’t see the value in that.

  14. mage,

    I stopped skipping breaks several months ago when I found out my claims for pay for the half-hour weren’t honored. I just tell them I’m taking a break and walk off the floor. Most of the nurses who habitually skipped breaks continue to do so, though, even though I tell them the company’s stealing from them. And they don’t bother putting in for the half-hour’s pay–they’re too whipped to bother any more. The orderlies fight back with heavy absenteeism and turnover. It’s a lot easier to call in sometimes than it is to get off the floor once you’re there. And given the turnover and the horrible understaffing, we know we can call in or show up an hour late with minimal understaffing.

    The one thing that would surely get us fired is open union activity, or anything like concerted action that resembled union activity. I’m usually the one to make sure everybody hears about any case of management skullduggery, and I’ve distributed flyers on my floor about hospital understaffing killing patients and actually raising costs. And I’ve repeatedly called the Ethics and Compliance hotline at corporate HQ to report on staffing issues and management lies about it. Of Course Compliance conducts an “investigation” which consists of asking HR about it and taking their response as gospel truth.

    But actually making an appointment with a hospital administrator to complain? Here’s what would happen. They’d give me the Stepford Wife smile and repeat the policy about taking breaks, and say “Thank you for sharing your concerns. Please feel to drop by anytime.” Then they’d write down “troublemaker” next to my name, and say “Aha–that’s the guy who’s been complaining to Ethics and Compliance.” And I’d be under closer surveillance by people looking to create a paper trail, and probably wind up fired.

    So I do a lot of Wobbly “open-mouth sabotage” with the patients and their families. And I have other ways (ahem) of by God guaranteeing that they lose more money from waste and from not charging patients for supplies.

    Contacting doctors sounds like a good idea, but I’d have to do it anonymously. A mass circular mailed to all the doctors who work through the hospital would surely have the administration messing their drawers.

  15. Flexibility helped me in my work in a lot of ways. One of which is the use of my productive time which is during the morning. Therefore, I agree that flexibility is good at work, but only if we do it for a positive reason.

  16. This is sure an interesting conversation. Most people say they’d like the freedom, but when it’s actually handed to them, it’s overwhelming. Coming from an entrepreneurial perspective, it takes a lot of discipline and commitment to stay on task, but when you know that no one is holding you accountable, it’s sink or swim. I think the freedom is a good thing. It creates a greater appreciation for the whole picture- accountablitiy should not always have to be top-down. It’s kind of like when you turn a certain age and have more adult responsibilities. It’s time to take control and show that you can handle it.

  17. persornaly,i think flexibility is a nice think at work.it values the individual interest and group as well.as long as the company’s mission,goal and vision is being considered,then employees must be allowed to their job at the time that suit them.flexible working enables individuals to spent enough time with their families(especially mothers and fathers).this is the matter of balancing the workind time with social time.if an employee is capable of finishing his/her work in time lessthan the expectect by his/her boss,why should he/she stay in the premises until the nockoff time?”the boss must not extent individual’s dally mission,just becouse she/he has a pace of finishing the work”-‘this will be an individual abuse’.let people choose their leave at time that suit them,either fixed or on short notice.

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