As seen in Enterprising Women Magazine
How to Welcome Flexible Work Arrangements into Your Company
There are many reasons people seek location flexibility for work. But for those who equate “workplace” with a brick-and-mortar office where physical presence provides accountability, the new trend toward “location independence” can be a challenge.
Recent findings by Adobe indicate that 55 million—or 35% of the total U.S. workforce—are choosing to freelance. To be part of the “gig” economy.
How can we open our minds—and our business models—to embrace this new way of working?
Nina Kaufman, business strategist and attorney, and Margaretta Noonan, human resources consultant, explored this issue of location flexibility, and the steps business owners can take to set themselves up for success.
Nina Kaufman: The “old school” small business thinking was that you had to keep your eyes on your workers to make sure they did their jobs. Eyes off, and they slack off. But now, technology—and working remotely—can provide so many cost savings, savings which can’t be ignored if companies want to grow and scale. This is a powerful force shifting the perspective for business owners.
Margaretta Noonan: It gives rise to a more meaningful way to evaluate productivity. You can watch people like a hawk, but that doesn’t make them more productive. The bigger question is “What’s the most effective way to get the business results we want through the workforce we have or could hire?” That’s especially true with the growing class of “knowledge workers”—people who are paid not to produce widgets, but to produce writing or consulting or thinking or conversation. Deliverables that don’t require them to be at a given place or work site.
NK: How can business owners begin to feel more comfortable having employees work remotely or be more location-independent?
MN: It comes from clarity about what you want any particular position to produce. If you’ve hired a salesperson, you’re note measuring that salesperson by their physical presence in the office. You’re measuring calls, prospects, closed business. In a word—results.
NK: For companies that employ knowledge workers where results are not as easily quantifiable, how can they measure productivity?
MN: In a knowledge-based company where you’re providing intangible services to other organizations, you need to ask “What do I want this job to do? How will it contribute to my bottom line?” Then at the end, “Are those results being achieved?” If they are, do really you care whether that person’s working from 3AM to 9AM or from 9AM to 3PM?
NK: Yet, a business is more than just an aggregate of job tasks and positions. There’s a community, a social environment. It’s challenging to maintain a sense of togetherness and “team” when you don’t have physical cohesiveness.
MN: That’s a critical issue. Having a cohesive team is no longer about “I’ll just order in pizza so everyone will gather around.” You’ve got to get creative.
I work with a nonprofit with about 16 employees. Half are in Santa Fe, but others are in Tampa, Little Rock, Denver. Plus, they have consultants like me in Philadelphia or Boston–all over. Their “Connect” virtual monthly meetings are mandatory. But their facilitator is terrific about using technology to make it interactive. Chat boxes on the screen, annotation buttons, texting within the presentation—all so that it becomes more live.
Another nonprofit began their biweekly team calls with “Share three exciting things that happened this week.” Just shout out something cool that happened—whether work-related or not—so people knew when your kid got accepted to college or scored a goal at the soccer game. It helped create those virtual water cooler moments.
NK: As companies integrate “gig” or freelance workers into their traditional workforce, those “outsiders” have to be able to drop into the mix and become part of the team right away. How do you see this affecting employee training—not just meetings?
MN: That’s where companies still try to bring people on-site. Frankly, if you’re saving money by not needing large office space, use some of it for travel so you can bring your staff together occasionally. Or, if you have a hub like my Santa Fe client, use it to onboard new employees in person so they feel connected to the broader whole.
NK: Are there obstacles in assessing employee performance when, again, you don’t have eyes on your workers?
MN: If you’re clear on the measures of success, you’ll know who is hitting home runs and who’s bunting. Also, if you have regular opportunities to connect virtually, you’ll know who is more engaged, more participatory. You can tell who’s going the extra mile to answer emails more rapidly, and who needs the extra nudge or two.
NK: How can business owners try this out, without fully committing or upending their business model?
MN: What often happens—particularly in small businesses—is that the personal circumstances of an employee require a change. Maybe a valued employee is moving to another city. Or somebody decides after maternity leave that she loves the job, but can’t handle the commute. The conversation often looks like: “Gosh, I have to quit.” “No wait, don’t quit. Let’s see if we can find another way to solve this problem.”
NK: With remote employees, you want to set up very clear expectations for the work, the deliverables, the accountability. Just as you would with traditional employees.
MN: Right! But start only on a trial basis. Decide how long this “experiment” will last and how you’ll evaluate if it’s working. Be honest. Has this been right for your business? Has it been a good fit for the employee? If the answer is “no” for either one, call it quits and call off the experiment.
Usually, if a business owner has given this careful planning, and there have been thoughtful conversations, it works. In my experience, business owners find, “that wasn’t as big and scary as I thought it would be. I’d be willing to try it again.”
NK: But we can’t overlook the employee’s home (or remote) work environment. Is it a place where the employee can concentrate? Will he/she be distracted by family demands? Have trouble setting boundaries with young children?
And there are personal characteristics, too, that lead to success.
MN: Yes—people who like autonomy, who are self-starters, who enjoy working independently. They tend to thrive in a work-at-home or remote environment. People who aren’t wired that way, who need more direction or a more structured environment tend not to fare so well.
NK: What kinds of jobs are more amenable to working remotely?
MN: The ones that aren’t, obviously, require face-to-face customer contact. Like retail jobs. But jobs that rely on a web connection—computer work, voice calls, even bookkeeping—can migrate well.
IBM had a culture of remote working for over 30 years. A friend is a VP there, and she manages people she has never met in person. She has had periods in her career where she had a boss she never met. They’re making some changes now, because with a company that large, there were issues with collaboration. But it can still work for smaller companies who value the flexibility.
NK: Let’s list two or three things business owners can do to make their workforce a bit more adaptable and flexible, whether for Millennials coming in or older workers wanting more flexibility.
MN: First, read up about it. Search “flexible work arrangements” or “freelance working” or “gig economy.” That’ll give you a good foundation and context.
Second, examine your assumptions. Are you assuming that, because you can see my employees, you know what they’re doing? Or that, because you really like coming into the office, everybody does too? Your assumptions may be creating problems that don’t exist.
Also, talk to other business owners who have created this culture in their own companies. What’s working for them? What’s not? Learn from their mistakes.
NK: And talk to your professional advisors, too. There are a number of issues—like legal, insurance, and IT security—that may be involved. They’ll help you work out a strategy that avoids the road bumps.