The changing workscape: Flex-work options – What if we’re just not doing it right?

Standard

Working in an environment that does not invite or encourage an ethos of working where and how one is most productive, it can be difficult to believe that there are companies with flexibility in their DNA. Leaving the flex nature of the small- to medium-size tech enterprises, it did not seem like it would be that vast a cultural chasm to cross because we’re all working in this fast-paced, tech-driven world, aren’t we?

Truth is – no, we aren’t. Tech companies live and die by the technology. A conservative, traditional company operating in selling commodities does not believe it needs to be on the fast-track to digital change (either in how it does business/sells or in how it works internally). For all the grandiose, pie-in-the-sky talk about embracing technology, change and finding new ways of working, leaving that comfortable zone where one has “always had success” doing business is still how things are plugging along. Fundamentally, there is a disparity between the talk of change and innovation and the walk of eschewing change, putting up obstacles and viewing flexibility with suspicion.

It comes down to communication, on some level – first, a company (whatever its size, business or take on flex work) needs to go beyond lip services regardless of what they want. If they want employees to innovate and work where they feel best or chained to their desks 8 to 5, they need to make that clear in an honest and clear way. And employees need to make their needs known as well. Many companies have flex-work policies on the books, but people are afraid to take advantage, fearing being perceived as “not dedicated to their work”.

But, as a Virgin/YouGov survey predicts, we may be moving close to the almost office-free world in the next 20 years. It would be better and easier to start confronting the challenges and barriers now. Starting with the aforementioned and all-important practice of communication. Can we not shake off the stigma of flexible work and be clear about what “flexible work” means and what employers and employees expect of it?

The partial answer, at least for today, is: We’re not there yet. An apt answer for flex and telework (as well as for relationships in the undefined, “budding” stage!).

As with most things, I could ask whether there is actually a right or wrong way to introduce and undertake some of the flexible work options that are out there. Are we doing it right? No, probably not yet. As stated, we’re not there yet in terms of every company jumping on board looking for options – but we are at a stage that most companies have some of their workforce that could be offered flexible options – and the benefits go both ways.

“Flexible work” could mean a host of different things. Telecommuting, near and dear to my heart, alone has tremendous potential for changing the workscape as we know it today. A couple of ZDNet articles grabbed my attention for their focus on bigger societal benefits (not emphasizing the benefits to the individual or even the economic benefits to the companies taking advantage of remote or virtual work). One article made the point: Working at home is going green. The commute is reduced/eliminated – the environmental impact of that could be huge. Right now there are well over 200 million Americans making a daily commute. The second article discussed how policy-level decisions to support telecommuting would incentivize business growth. In this era of lost jobs and economic uncertainty, it does seem like policy change (especially with regard to making taxation more transparent and easy to handle for small home-based businesses, as an example – or making clear deductions possible for those who work from home offices and forgo the commute) would go a long way toward changing the dialogue and figuring out how to get flexwork going  — the right way and for real.

The changing workscape: Why is virtual work stigmatized while internet dating no longer is?

Standard

Does “flexibility stigma” exist?

Apparently so; it exists when it comes to work.

A similar kind of stigma used to exist when it came to online/internet dating. A CNN article highlights the fact that fewer than one percent of Americans were using the internet to meet dates in 1992 – and by 2009, almost a quarter of couples were meeting online. The Guardian reports, based on a University of Rochester study, that online dating is the second most common way Americans start relationships today.

My guess is the numbers may even be higher than what the CNN article reports; the stigma is virtually gone, but I think people probably still underreport their online-love exploration.

Online dating became broadly experimental, then accepted, and then mainstream. People (almost) proudly talk about how they met on OkCupid or Match.com or whatever the flavor-of-the-month or niche dating site is. The process has moved a lot like the bell curve of technology adoption. Online dating started with innovators and early adopters – I imagine that those who adopted early were tech-oriented people but also possibly the kind of people who would benefit from the barriers and anonymity of online interaction. (Hey, not taking any shots – I am a wee bit techie, a wee bit nerdy and a wee bit shy myself.)  Eventually a wider audience could see the benefits of doing a bit of pre-date vetting, getting to know people a bit better before meeting and being exposed to a broader array of people than one could meet in everyday life – particularly if they are busy people tired of trying to make some kind of connection with drunk people in bars. (Of course that assumes that the other people engaged in online dating are like-minded souls. That’s where the diffusion of innovation curve, in this case, does not work too well, especially in the early stages, in the early adopters’ favor.)

Okay, so online dating is not a panacea that answers all dating ills, and in fact there are some psychologists who claim that there are pitfalls (the aforementioned CNN article makes that clear, citing that online daters may be susceptible to warped outlooks and expectations, relying too much on vague profiles and contributing to a sense that one can be too picky or judgmental.

The Guardian article cited above also explores the idea that people online are looking for different things – and perhaps deceiving each other about it. There are some other great looks at how online dating is unsatisfying and can never really give people an accurate idea of whether they will really click with someone or not. Too true:

“…online dating sites assume that people are easy to describe on searchable attributes.  They think that we’re like digital cameras, that you can describe somebody by their height and weight and political affiliation and so on. But it turns out people are much more like wine.  That when you taste the wine, you could describe it, but it’s not a very useful description.  But you know if you like it or don’t.  And it’s the complexity and the completeness of the experience that tells you if you like a person or not.  And this breaking into attributes turns out not to be very informative.”

Personally, I would also argue about the creation of the illusion of endless choice – related to the point about pickiness and judgment made in the CNN article. People also don’t always know what they want – or need. But that is totally beside the point here. It’s a complex thing, like relationships themselves.

The question is – how has online dating become accepted, acceptable and the de facto thing to do while something totally above-board like online, virtual work isn’t? It’s not like for like and may not be comparable, but I suppose the difference is the line between what is personal and what is professional – and in the professional realm, more is at stake. On the other hand, do people pay a certain price for taking steps (personal or professional) that fall under one of these “stigma umbrellas”? That is, is the online dater somehow limiting herself to just that pool of people willing to be online and to those who can craft a profile that speaks to what she (thinks she) is looking for? Is the person who takes advantage of “workplace flexibility” also being stigmatized at work – not advancing in her career, perhaps – because she has asked or opted for a more flexible arrangement?

The worker seeking flexibility in her own life may in fact be seen by the employer as less flexible and less committed and therefore less “promotable”. While it may seem that women would be disproportionately affected, some studies show that men may be most adversely affected by asking for flexibility. Basically there is a lose-lose for both men and women who aim to work flexibly:

“There can be a stigma for remote or blended schedules, however: parents who want to be more available to their kids may opt for this, and that usually means women. These remote employees may not be as available as someone in the office, may appear to be slacking off, and may reduce their opportunities for promotion. Whether or not those things are true does not matter if there is a perception of truth to them.”

This only covers how some employers see flexible workers – it does not cover the whole concept of flexible work. Flexible work itself, regardless of the person doing it, invites all kinds of stigma about the kinds of workers who want to work at home (or without workspace restrictions) and the quality of work and productivity that can come of it:

“The fact working from home is often less pressured is probably why 19% of those asked, felt home workers take advantage of having no boss around and slack off.

Yet, when you look at the 2.8m home-based entrepreneurs who are running businesses from their kitchen tables and turning over an extra 284bn for the UK economy, you start to recognise that home-workers can be just as productive and even more driven.

Lastly, giving employees the option to work from home can make good business sense in other ways too. It can help a business save money because it means it won’t have to fork out for a huge office and there won’t be as much wear and tear on the office utilities.”

I have had the same questions – how is it, if I have successfully operated my own content business from my home for 15 years, that a corporation who chose to hire me as a regular employee would not be able to value the productivity and experience gained in those 15 office-less years? Imagine this: Microsoft in Finland a National Remote Working Day, asking employers to think about the benefits of remote working, including shorter commute times and further reaching environmental benefits. Events like this are unfortunately rare enough that the idea of virtual work may still be holding businesses back.