By Ellen Ernst Kossek and Kelly Hannum
If you’ve squeezed all the productivity gains you can out of your workforce or the people around you are stressed out or disengaged, we’ve got some advice: Be more flexible about how, when and where your employees work.
This isn’t a plug for formal telecommuting or flextime programs. It’s an argument for adapting work in ways that allow for the greatest productivity by taking into account individual differences.
Let us explain.
Typically, we think of productivity and efficiency in terms of creating work structures and routines that boost output and reduce error. This approach is fine — as far as it goes. But individual productivity should also be factored in.
Research (our own and others’) shows that employees are healthier, experience less stress, and are more productive and engaged when they effectively make choices about how, where and when they work. One way to do this is by responding to individual “work styles.”
Consider Kevin. He works at a firm that has been slow to hire even though business is growing. Kevin manages several key initiatives and is on the road twice as much as he was last year. Even so, he is expected to put in significant “face time” at the office. Kevin schedules flights on evenings and weekends, and commutes into the office even when much of his work could be done remotely. And, since he’s connected 24/7 via his smart phone, he feels pressure to maintain a visible online presence by responding to even non-urgent emails.
Here’s the thing: Kevin loves his work and is willing to put in long hours to be successful. But, juggling his many roles and responsibilities is starting to strain his work, his health and his marriage. Although he won’t admit it, Kevin often feels distracted and not at the top of his game.
The key for Kevin is to better manage his time and energy so he can be more accomplished both at work and at home. Some changes he could make on his own; others require support. To boost his focus and productivity, Kevin should first clarify his preferred ways to work by asking questions such as:
- How am I currently managing boundaries between work and personal life? Do I let work interrupt family? Family interrupt work? Both or neither?
- How do I describe my primary identity? Am I primarily work focused, family focused, equally focused on work and family? Or is my primary identity tied other interests such as recreation, athletics, volunteering, religious activities?
- To what degree do I have control over how I manage transitions between work and family?
- How engaged and effective am I? What changes would I like to make?
For example, Kevin would like the flexibility to work from home occasionally or travel during the work day or take a longer lunch to exercise at the gym. These changes would suit his preferred work style, giving him more energy and strengthening his commitment to his work. But to do this consistently and confidently, Kevin also needs reassurance from his boss that he’s a valued employee and that face time is less important than results.
As a boss, you can support your employees and create a high-performance culture by leveraging employees’ work styles in four ways:
First, focus on results that matter. Many managers worry that employees will take advantage of flexible arrangements. Or they don’t know how to be both flexible and fair. The key is to establish a work culture that focuses on the results that matter most for the business. Of course, this requires you to clearly understand your organization’s goals, be a good communicator of your expectations and define results accordingly.
Second, personalize it. People work effectively in different ways. Some employees may want to blend their work and family roles; others prefer to keep them separated. For example, some will view working while on vacation as a stress-free way to stay on top of things. Other employees will find working on vacation as a stressful intrusion and it may contribute to burnout. As a boss, your role is to help employees mesh their preferred style and needs with their work reality.
Third, let there be choices. Rather than fighting for your employees’ time and attention, seek out ways to give them more choice in how they control their working time. Studies show that a greater sense of control leads to greater engagement at work.
Fourth, involve others in managing work processes. Great managers set up supportive work-life systems and processes. They lead individual and team conversations to empower employees to speak up and feel accountable for the way work gets done. This requires moving from a paternalistic management style to one that helps employees feel accountable for coordinating work to enable flexible working. With freedom comes responsibility – and new ways of working in organizations.
Ellen Ernst Kossek is a University Distinguished Professor at Michigan State University and author of CEO of Me: Creating a Life That Works in the Flexible Job Age. Kelly Hannum is a researcher at the Center for Creative Leadership (www.ccl.org).