Article: Flexi Work: A Tale of Two Options

Employee Relations

Flexi Work: A Tale of Two Options

Organisations debate the relevance of flexible working hours as they struggle to streamline costs and engage employees
Flexi Work: A Tale of Two Options

The universal outcry about one policy change in Yahoo! is actually a reflection of inclination of people to pursue lives that fit what they truly want to be


The secret to arriving at a flexiwork strategy that works for a company is to find a balance between achieving optimum level of motivation and productivity


Marissa Mayer’s decision to ban work from home at Yahoo! has ignited an international debate over workplace flexibility. And one month down the line the rumour mills are still humming. What makes this topic so sensational that every one working in the corporate world seems entitled to have an opinion on it? How do you define flexible working? Why should organisations and businesses, small and large, welcome flexible working and what is the business case for doing so?

Coming back to Yahoo!, these knee-jerk reactions seem to be missing the forest for the trees. Marissa Mayer is the fifth CEO of Yahoo! in the last six years and the youngest head of a Fortune 500 company. Hired from Google, Mayer is expected to turn around Yahoo!’s fortunes. Yahoo! has missed the two biggest trends on the internet – social media and mobile. Its email services and home page have become relics used by people who never bother to try new things. It ceded its top spot as the biggest seller of display ads to Facebook & Google and its stock price is consistently plummeting.

The policy change affects some 200 people out of Yahoo!’s 12,000 employees (a measly 2 per cent). Mayer has a big turn-around to execute and this step is just a bold move in that direction. It reflected in Yahoo!’s statement post the controversy, which said, “This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home. This is about what is right for Yahoo!, right now.”

However the point to be noted here is that the debate around flexiwork has generated reactions from men and women alike. Flexible working hours is no longer a women’s issue. In fact, in a survey conducted by Cisco in 2012 of 2,800 college students and young professionals under 30 in 14 countries, one out of three respondents said he/she would prioritise social media freedom, device flexibility, and work mobility over salary in accepting a job offer.

The universal outcry about one policy change in Yahoo! is actually a reflection of the changing demographies, blurring gender lines and the inclination of people to pursue lives that fit what they truly want to be.

What is flexiwork?

In HR terminology, flexiwork allows an employee to better manage the time and place in which they work. It may also involve an option to move from part-time to full-time and back again and options such as career breaks for personal or family responsibilities.

Flexiwork finds its genesis in the management philosophy of Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) developed by Cal Ressler and Jody Thompson, wherein employees are measured on the basis of results rather than the number of hours worked. ROWE is based on the premise that giving employees complete control over their time is the best way to increase productivity in the workplace. Managers focus only on results, while employees get to decide when and how they get the work done. First introduced in Best Buy, ROWE has since then been adopted by 40 companies including GAP, Yum brands etc. However, it doesn’t work for all roles, especially those that require physical presence.

What makes flexiwork so desirable?

The Personal Productivity Challenge by Microsoft found that employees average only three productive days per week despite spending 45 hours a week in office. The survey results indicate that being in office certainly does not guarantee productivity and comes as a rude shock in times when organisations are trying hard to maximise productivity while trying to keep costs low.

Real estate costs today, represent the second biggest overhead after salaries for most organisations. In cities such as central London, the cost of a desk per person per annum is somewhere between $19,000 and $22,000. (Source: Whitepaper by Unwired Ventures Ltd.) With Connaught Place, New Delhi, being the fourth most expensive office location in the world, Mumbai’s Bandra Kurla complex the eighth most expensive region in APAC and five Indian cities (Delhi, Banaglore, Chennai, Pune, Kolkata) with top rental growth in APAC (Source: Cushman & Wakefield, “Office space across the world 2013”) real estate will be a significant cost driver for organisations in India too. In order to maximise productivity, it serves to have a flexible work environment.

People have busier and more complicated lives than ever before, with mobile email further blurring the lines between professional and personal work. Research by Underwires Ventures Limited shows that on an average people spent 54 minutes commuting to their workplace. Numbers could be more daunting in developing countries where cities are becoming increasingly congested. Traffic speed in major cities of India can be as low as 5 km per hour during peak traffic hours and experts say that cities is heading towards a gridlock. (Source: Economic Times, State Traffic Police Departments). Enabling flexiwork would mean that employees can actually work in the time they spend to commute to work.

Workplaces of today especially in India have a multigenerational workforce creating a unique challenge because each generation has its own characteristics, aspirations and preferred way of working. Millennials (Generation Y) believe in equality at the workplace and like to have a life beyond work. With increased advancement in technology, the millennials do not believe that they need to be at a specific place at a specific time in order to deliver results. Mukund Mohan, CEO in Residence, Microsoft Accelerator, seconds them, “We found that different people have different times when they tend to be productive. We have meetings at a specific time when everyone needs to be available, even then people have the option to attend it virtually if they have a specific need.”

With changing demographies, flexible working environment can be a powerful tool to attract and retain employees, while increasing productivity. As per a survey by Evolv, a workforce analytics start-up, the median retention rate of employees who are allowed to work from home is 28 per cent higher. P.V. Ramana Murthy, Senior Vice President, HR, Hindustan Coca Cola Beverages agrees. He says, “Many employees these days face challenges in terms of commuting to work, long working hours and balancing personal and work responsibilities. If we allow employees to be more flexible in terms of working, employee productivity certainly goes up. And because we are focusing on the needs of the employees and building a more inclusive organisation, engagement and retention also go up.

Shilpa Khanna, Director, Aon Hewitt, adds another dimension to the benefits of flexiwork. She says,“We need to look at business continuity and organisational sustainability, which I don’t think many organisations are thinking about in India. What if there is a disaster and the office shuts down? Work can still continue if the organisation has enabled remote working. From a sustainability perspective, flexi work environment can be another alternative.”

In terms of staffing strategy, remote working presents a major bonus to employers as it allows them access to out of reach skilled workers who live out of commuting range and would be reluctant or unable to relocate. Equally, it might also allow the retention of skilled and experienced staff whose circumstances change and who may otherwise have had to resign. The saving in recruitment and training costs alone could be substantial, especially in niche industries. Bhuvaneshwar Naik, Vice President - HR, SAP Labs India cites data from his organisation, “Since the time we have launched flexible work hours which gives employees the option to work from home, work part time or opt for flexible working hours, our maternity attrition that was 31 per cent in 2010 has come down to 4 per cent. And our employee engagement has gone up by 13 per cent which is the highest in the SAP world.”

However, to capitalise on the benefits of flexiwork, organisations need to build enabling processes or the outcomes can be counter-productive.

The pitfalls

The Evolv survey, which also reported 28 per cent higher retention because of flexiwork, mentions that both offsite and onsite workers have a steep learning curve. However, office workers are faster than those who work from home after 90 days of work. Remote employees hit a plateau at day 120 - and after 150 days of logging in from their house, they actually start to get slower. Remote workers do have to be able to motivate themselves to work independently and with less supervision. Some employees find this difficult and miss the direction and management they may have previously received from face-to-face contact. Productivity declines, more often than not, because management is unclear on expectations and measures.

Another reported disadvantage is a feeling of isolation. Some feel that they miss out on informal organisational discussions and even feel that they are less valued than their onsite colleagues.

Moreover, there are preconceptions that remote working is “easier” and remote workers tend to “skive off”. A recent survey in Computer Weekly reported that “when their remote employees do not immediately answer their home or mobile phones, managers show some lapse of faith. Nearly a quarter think their employees are running household errands or shuttling the kids around, and 9 per cent believe they are being deliberately ignored.” Managers still believe that it is easier to manage and track performance when employees are available and because of this perception, employees working in the office enjoy an increased chance of moving up the corporate ladder.

Another challenge with not being in office is of data security. Most organisations use broadband with Web Virtual Private Network (VPN) to provide a secure connection between two or more locations via the Internet. Web VPN is a remote access security platform, which provides relatively simple and secure access to applications and information they require. Although remote employees may be no less vigilant than onsite colleagues, they are more exposed to unsafe applications putting organisational data at risk.

Organisations, which employ remote workers, might also suffer a significant loss of cohesive identity.
There is another challenge unique to India, “The social structure of India doesn’t support work from home. If you are working from home, families assume that you are not working. Secondly, most people don’t have space for an office in our homes. In the US, all people have dedicated spaces at home to work,” says Khanna.

One size fits all?

While the debate about flexiwork is universal, the fact is undeniable that not all jobs are suited to remote working and there are equal numbers of drawbacks as there are benefits to remote working. Some tasks lend themselves better than others, requiring long periods of uninterrupted work without any collaboration while others need staff to be on-site and available during working hours. Raghavendra K., Vice President & Head HR, Infosys BPO, talks about his organisation, “Unlike other organisations, we work on client networks on behalf of our customers. So our customers need to authorise remote working because it involves data security, confidentiality etc.

Identifying sound business reasons for flexible working will not only assuage concerns which some organisations have about flexible working hours, it will also provide an opportunity to look at and make positive changes in the way work is organised – the win-win situation which mutually benefits the business and the employee.

Genpact has a flexiwork policy based on specific roles. “Depending on his/her role, an employee can avail the benefits after getting the requisite approval from his/her manager,” says Piyush Mehta, Senior Vice President, HR, Genpact. Organisations need to define which role needs employees to be onsite and could allow employees in those roles to choose their working hours from fixed time slots.

Investment in the right technology is another critical aspect of enabling flexi work. As Hemant Behal, Senior Vice President - HR, Ceat Tyres says, “We have developed a mobile application for some teams. This gives the employees access to various sales and production data and reports on a real time basis thus increasing productivity on the go.”

Next is the factor of enabling team work and collaboration. Should it be a 100 per cent work from home or should there be certain points in time where people should come together or are there other ways to leverage technology to drive innovation and collaboration?

The current performance management systems also needs to move from an effort based performance management system to a result based performance management system, putting the pressure back on HR to define clear metrics.

The secret to arriving at a flexiwork strategy that works for a company is to find a balance between achieving optimum level of motivation and productivity. Ultimately, organisations need to decide how best to empower people and hold them accountable. A more specific, and individually targeted, work from home policy that supports both team and individual productivity, with clear goals for each, will most likely help firms evolve over time.

Lastly, whether or not employees can work from home depends on the state the organisation is in. An organisation like Yahoo! or Best Buy, which is going through a crisis and is in need of a magical turnaround, may need all-hands-on-deck. And remote working may not work for them at all.

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Topics: Employee Relations, Employee Engagement, Culture

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