Here’s What Actually Happens When Employees Have Flexible and Remote Work Options

June 18, 2018

Bill Gates once predicted that as competition for talent gets tougher, “companies that give extra flexibility to their employees will have the edge.” And, he might be right.

According to recent research from the UK’s Advisory, Conciliation, and Arbitration Service (Acas), flexible work arrangements can actually improve the effectiveness of both individuals and teams—with 91% of HR professionals reporting that employees were more engaged and satisfied.

On top of that, three-quarters of millennials say they would take a pay cut to work for a company that offered flexible hours. And, Deloitte recently found that millennials are much likelier to stay in a role for more than five years if their company is flexible about where and when they work.

But, despite these compelling findings, many companies are still hesitant to offer flexible work options. In fact, we’ve seen countless big companies like IBM and Yahoo recently start scaling back their flexible work—fearing it will hurt productivity, foster unfairness, and make it difficult to manage teams.

However, Acas research shows that if done right, flexible and remote work actually offers many benefits to companies. The key is developing a strategy that will help keep everyone aligned, supported, and engaged.  

So, if you’re considering offering flexible work arrangements at your company, here are some best practices you can follow to make the most of them.

1. Build clear communications channels to keep flexible workers accountable and informed

Being able to work remotely or at flexible times allow employees to match their work environment to their working style (like being a morning person or preferring total silence). This can make them more focused on what they’re doing and more willing to help their coworkers out. People working from home may have fewer distractions than they’d experience in the workplace. And, all of that translates to greater efficiency for the employee in question—and that efficiency boosts overall productivity.

But these benefits are only made possible by clear communication and strong organization. Without them, flexible work arrangements can lead to missed deadlines, angry managers, frustrated coworkers, and more.

There are several steps you can take to improve coordination for staff wherever (and whenever) they are. First, it’s important for all team members to know how they’re going to huddle together on projects when one person is not on site or working the same hours or in the same time zone. Maybe they’ll use a chat app, touch base at a specified time every day, or text each other after standard working hours.

Establish the method of communication that works best for everyone and agree how regularly remote or flexible workers should check in to stay accountable to their deadlines. This might include setting up a weekly video call with the team, or asking them to send a quick progress email every morning. They should also be clear about the best way to raise an issue if one arises.

2. Create a strong support network to prevent feelings of isolation

While working from the comfort of your own sofa sounds appealings, remote work can sometimes leave employees feeling isolated. In a report from Brazil, 63% of remote workers said isolation from their colleagues was a major disadvantage for them. And when the line between work and home life starts to blur, work can become more intense—and more stressful.

Acas also found that flexible workers feel a greater need to “give back” to their companies for accommodating their needs. For many, this helps them feel motivated and increases their productivity. But left unchecked, all that overtime and sense of obligation can increase the likelihood of a burnout.

To combat any isolation or guilt associated with remote work, focus on building a strong support system. Rather than leaving flexible workers to do their own thing, increasing manager oversight can provide employees with some much-needed social interaction and give them more confidence that they’re doing a great job.

When asked how often they wanted to have contact with their direct supervisor, the majority (34%) of remote workers said once a week, and 31% said once per day. To make these regular check-ins more meaningful for everyone, managers can focus on giving constructive, measurable feedback and setting clear goals.

Using platforms like Slack and Campfire can also help remote workers build relationships with on-site staff and really feel like part of the team. Even something as simple as setting up a fun chat channel for coworkers to joke, share silly GIFs, and discuss weekend plans can help recreate the sense of community fostered in a physical workspace.

3. Develop clear, consistent guidelines for flexible work so that it’s fair for everyone

Companies considering flexible work arrangements often worry that employees will become harder to manage. But Acas’s research suggests that consistency and fairness are the key to effectively managing flexible teams and keeping everyone happy.

The first step is establishing a clear policy that managers can use to consider employees’ requests for flexible work. Without one, managers may decide on an ad hoc basis who gets to work from home tomorrow and whether it’s okay for someone to leave early. This can cause resentment among coworkers, which can hurt morale.

Maybe remote work is only allowed for up to two days per week. Or requests for flexible hours have to be made at least a day in advance. If everyone knows the guidelines for flexible work requests, this helps build a culture of trust and confidence. Consider every request on an individual basis and make sure managers follow the guidelines consistently, so that employees know the policy is fair for everyone.

Also, make sure that employees know when they have to be flexible with their flexibility. Understanding that they might sometimes have to change their plans can help them manage their expectations.

4. Encourage managers to model healthy flexible work arrangements

Flexible work arrangements might be growing in popularity, especially among younger employees, but Acas found that certain stigmas around this work style are still common—like the idea that people who want to work flexible hours lack ambition. Many employees also reported the belief that working flexibly could hurt their chances of advancing.

Support from senior staff is vital to eliminating stigmas and making flexible work part of the norm. Research shows that when managers work flexibly themselves, 82% believe these arrangements benefit the company as a whole. This makes them more likely to encourage and support others to embrace this model—and helps them understand how to do it the right way.

This can also help repair cultures that once emphasized exhaustively long work days—where employees felt they had to stay late out of a sense of duty, to prove their worth, or because leaving first was frowned upon. Overwork has been proven to lead to diminishing returns, resulting in burnout, lack of sleep, and a drop in productivity. Even after banishing this culture, employees might still think their career advancement depends on being present in the workplace for longer, so a manager who embraces flexible arrangements can help change that.

Flexible work arrangements can benefit the whole company, when established properly

The ability to work remotely or adjust hours can have a hugely positive impact on an employee’s health and overall wellbeing. It can also be great for your company, increasing productivity and improving morale.

But for flexible work to work, your company has to commit to establishing a clear and consistent plan from day one. You’ll also need buy-in from managers and other senior staff to make sure this model is accepted for what it is—an efficiency and happiness booster, not a career killer.

Make sure staff knows where to turn if they feel isolated, and give teams the tools they need to communicate effectively. After all, in the digital age, it’s easier than ever to get in touch with people—whether they’re in the workplace, at home, or at the grocery store.

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