The false “promise” of flexibility in the workplace

Many companies offer truly flexible working arrangements – you can work from home, the coffee shop, abroad… anywhere. In a world where network connectivity is typically free and ubiquitous, we seem to have reached the nirvana of ultimate workplace flexibility.

My company, Menlo Innovations might be considered to be a bit of an expert on this topic, as we have had the honour of being named as an awardee of the The Alfred P. Sloan Award for Excellence in Workplace Effectiveness and Flexibility eight years running – including receiving the highest overall score in the nation one of those years.

Yet, Menlo would appear to be the opposite of flexible. We work 40-hour workweeks – never weekends – and we have no “work from home” options, except in important or special circumstances. We have no wild flex hours either – our office generally opens up around 8am, and by 6pm the office is dark and locked (unless one of the founders is still there).

Where then, is our flexibility and why do we choose to run our workplace in what could be described as a 1950s approach to work life?

What I learned in my own career, is that when we are given the option of working from anywhere at any time, we are expected to be available 24/7. We are essentially “on call” our entire lives, including while on vacation. The question we asked was, “what message are we sending to our children if they only see us working all the time?

What does a laptop at the beach have to do with life? What does an iPhone at dinner contribute to family time? How does a text at 3am support re-energising sleep?

Our flexibility is built into the very process that runs Menlo. All roles at Menlo are paired… two people, one computer, working on the same task at the same time. If you need time off you make a time-off “statement” not a time-off request. Because we switch our pairs weekly, it is easy to backfill someone who doesn’t come in that day, even on short notice – work doesn’t stop or even slow down in this arrangement.

When you go on vacation, you are forbidden from checking email. It is important for people to “unplug” from work when away. Lisa for example, took seven weeks off, and was off the Menlo email grid for the entire time. At the time she left for her break, she was working as one of the project managers on Menlo’s largest project. The same rules still apply.

The team has even started holding me, the CEO, similarly accountable to this mandate. My last weeklong vacation was email free. Apparently they think sustaining the CEO is a worthy pursuit. I worked it out with my team in a way that when I returned from vacation I only had 35 messages waiting for me. Joy.

This flexibility gives us scalability, because it is easy to add more people to a project to get more work done as we have trivialised onboarding, simply because we practice it every week.

The talk these days is about sustainability: climate, energy, ecosystems, economies, urban centers, species, tribes and nations. I believe it is time we add a new topic to the sustainability conversation: the people who work for us.

We Menlonians refer to our approach as “the business value of joy.” There is great value in sustaining your workforce over a long run, as you will always have the capacity you need and when you need it, if you don’t burn out your team.

“Lean thinking” says we should build excess capacity into our manufacturing plants, yet we never do this with our human teams. Most people are rewarded for working 110%. So far, modern work society has learned to treat our machines better than our humans – I refuse to accept this as a premise of a healthy and sustainable business.

As you contemplate your own workplace flexibility options, consider what effect they have on the people who work for you. Are you making it so easy to work from anywhere that people are working from everywhere all the time? Does that actually contribute to the quality and speed you need to satisfy your customers? These are important questions as you consider what it takes to remain competitive. 

I wish you joy in your pursuit of these worthy questions!

This is a guest blog and may not represent the views of Virgin.com. Please see virgin.com/terms for more details. Thumbnail from gettyimages.

Comment

Our Companies

Quick Links