By John Arenas | June 16, 2014

The Pros and Cons of Workplace Flexibility

Does the potential gain of knowledge transfer and collaboration from office attendance overshadow the potential gain of talent retention through flexible work arrangements?

Although the United States Department of Labor states that four out of every five workers across every demographic say they want more flexible work arrangements, a “flexibility gap” exists and many companies still debate over the pros and cons of telecommuting.

In Phasing Out Face Time, HR Magazine discusses Yahoo’s decision to nix its telecommuting program in hopes of increased speed and quality. Yahoo HR Director Jackie Reses explained that communication and collaboration starts with “being physically together.” Soon after, employees took to social media with claims that their CEO, Marissa Mayer, was stuck in the 80s and 90s. Yahoo spokeswoman, Lauren Armstrong reacted, “This isn’t a broad industry view on working from home – this is about what is right for Yahoo, right now.” While the impact on Yahoo’s talent retention remains to be seen, other companies are not willing to take a chance.

In the meantime, other companies like Unilever were pushing in the opposite direction in hopes of addressing morale and satisfaction challenges. Deeming flexible work strategies as a competitive advantage, the company developed the Agile Working Program in which most if its employees are permitted to work anytime, anywhere, as long as they meet business needs. This Results Only Work Environment (ROWE) allows employees to remain completely autonomous but nevertheless accountable. Outcomes and performance matter more than being on time, looking your best, and being present. Although this sounded like a promising plan, HR Vice President of Unilever, Raia Laird, still had to convince executives that this was the way to go.

Laird’s business case was rich, siting benefits such as reduced travel expenses,nbetter employee health, better employee work-life, reduction in real estate costs, sustainability, and employee retention. Executives had no other choice but to accept. After the roll out of the program, workers claimed to be more productive and healthier, the company saved $111.5 million in travel costs, their environmental footprint dropped by 30%, and top notch candidates were being hired. Although there are no recent updates on productivity metrics, the Company’s performance has steadily risen.

There is not a universal answer to whether companies should implement flexible work arrangements. For a company in trouble, it might mean calling the troops into one location to stabilize. For others like Unilever, teleworking may have been the answer to employee morale and talent acquisition challenges. Although there are many benefits to teleworking arrangements, there are still skeptics who believe in the importance of face time and the visibility of office hierarchy. The key to making this shift palatable for these non-believers is to ensure sustainability of performance through establishing key performance indicators, implement proactive public relations for the program, and continue to promote the company’s core principles.

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