Live from #BFE13: Is Workplace Flexibility Overrated?

A lot of organizations are trying to incorporate flexible work arrangements of some sort into the way they do business, and the general attitude today is that workplace flexibility is a good thing. But Jody Thompson disagrees — vehemently.

“Workplace flexibility is an oxymoron,” the co-creator of the Results-Only Work Environment and co-author of two books on the topic, told attendees at the EBN Benefits Forum and Expo earlier this week in New Orleans.

Say you’re a manager with an employee named Jackie, who has a flexible schedule in which she works four days a week and has Fridays off, Thompson said. Then she comes to you to ask for time off to go to the dentist on a Wednesday. You ask why she can’t use her free day on Friday. She says her dentist isn’t open on Fridays.

This system isn’t flexible, it’s paternalistic, Thompson said. Once an employee has a “flexible schedule,” they have to ask for permission to do anything outside of that schedule. Then the manager’s life is taken over by talking about employees’ schedules and giving or denying permission to change them.

The Flexibility Trap

Flexibility isn’t a ticket to freedom –  it’s a trap, says Thompson. Here’s why:

  • It’s limited. As the example above illustrates, there’s only so much flexibility an organization is willing to offer its employees.
  • It’s not fair. You’re never going to make a flexibility program fair to everyone. You will always end up with haves and have-nots. There will always be people who are unhappy with what they have compared with their co-workers.
  • It’s career suicide. Even in companies that brag about the flexibility they offer employees, most workers know there’s a price to pay for accepting it. The classic idea that if you don’t come in early and stay late you don’t get a promotion remains strong in today’s workplace. In most workplaces you can either have flexibility or you can get promotions.

The Sludge Factory

In most workplaces today, people are more concerned about perceptions — about what looks good — than about results, Thompson said. And when people don’t like the way someone appears to be doing their work, they have a lot to say about it. Thompson calls this judgmental language “sludge.”

Some examples of sludge:

  • “Boy those smokers get a lot of breaks!”
  • “How did Bob get another promotion? He’s never even here.”
  • “How many days are you going to take off this month, Mary?”

And they all boil down to a chorus of “not fair, not fair, NOT FAIR!!!!!”

An Outdated Currency of Work

All of these problems with today’s brand of workplace flexibility have to do with the fact that many organizations are still operating under a traditional method of evaluating employees’ work, Thompson said. This is the calculation they use:

Time + Physical Presence = Results

The problem is that being physically present for a certain amount of time doesn’t mean you’re getting anything done in that time. That equation doesn’t really add up, Thompson said. But she has a new one that does. Learn more on our post on the Monster Thinking blog.

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