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Today we have a guest post from Katty Kay.  Katty is the Washington correspondent for BBC News America and co-author of Womenomics: The Workplace Revolution that Will Change Your Life (2009).

Stephanie is sitting at her desk, half an eye on the clock, the other half on the light in her boss’ office. She has finished her assignments for the day and there’s really not much more she can accomplish until the next morning. It’s midnight in Hong Kong and her Chinese client is fast asleep. Stephanie wants to go home but senses that leaving at 5pm would be frowned on, so she sits out the wait for her boss to leave and browses the J Crew sale. 

Stephanie is of course an imaginary figure. But she could well be anyone of us. She certainlyoldtimeclock.jpg has been me. And, told like that, her situation sounds absurd. She is simply wasting time – hers and her companies. Fortunately Stephanie’s made-up situation is increasingly anachronistic. All around the world companies and their employees are waking up to the fact that clock-time is unproductive and flex-time makes sound business sense.

The workplace revolution, and it really is just that, is made possible by technology. Mobile devices allow us to do our jobs anywhere, anytime. Today we can deal with business queries just as easily from our kitchens as from our cubicles. Why waste an hour in traffic commuting to a downtown office when we can fulfill many of our tasks staying right home?  Just imagine how productively you could use that hour thinking, strategizing or talking instead.

Your client/boss/colleague/boardmember has no idea whether that email came from the sidelines of the football pitch or the desktop at your corporate headquarters. The BlackBerry is a thing of great beauty for everyone wishing to escape the tyranny of the office. What matters today is your performance not your location.

Technology may be enabling this shift but it’s people who are demanding it.

In company after company, employees, both men and women, say greater control of their schedules is one of the things they would like most. Women with young children have been in the forefront of this charge. Faced with the crunch of career versus kids many professional women have decided to quit (in 2003 the New York Times dubbed this the opt-out revolution). These educated, career women felt they simply couldn’t do the fifty hour weeks and have enough time for their families. 

But these women were useful, talented, experienced, and annoyingly expensive to replace so smart companies tried to find ways to accommodate them.  Capital One, a Virginia based financial services business, surveyed its women’s network and asked what they needed to stop them from quitting. More flexibility came the answer. So Capital One introduced its “alternative work schedules” – a range of different work options including five days squeezed into four, part time schedules, conference calls and telecommuting. The alternative schedules were so popular Capital One took them out of the women’s network and made them available to the whole company.

Electronics retail giant Best Buy has an even more radical approach. Best Buy has taken the clocks off the walls and implemented a Results Only Work Environment – a ROWE. Professional employees can work anywhere, anytime and are measured solely on results.

What’s most encouraging about the companies which have implemented this novel approach to work is the results. At Best Buy productivity increased by an average of 40%. Capital One says employees become more committed, more productive, happier and retention improved. Other companies with similar flexible schemes are equally convinced – treat employees like grown ups, give them more control of their schedules and they will return the favor.
I know that I will sneak out the office back door to go to my son’s school play whether I’m “allowed” to or not. But if I have to sneak the chances are I’ll feel resentful. If I go with my boss’s blessing I feel grateful and more inclined to do a good job.
What makes this revolution permanent is a generational shift. Gen X, and their even techier younger cohorts Gen Y, grew up in a mobile world. They conduct friendships on Facebook. They study online at Starbucks. They do pretty much everything virtually and they know, instinctively, that you don’t have to be in a certain place (the office cubicle) to be productive. Indeed for Gens X and Y the very idea of having to be tethered to a physical location for 10 hours a day is anathema. They don’t and won’t get it.
That is as true for younger men as it is for women. Surveys suggest men in their twenties have similar attitudes to balancing work with family life as women. The genders sound remarkably similar. So the push for flexibility will no longer be a “women’s” or a “mother’s” issue, prone to always being marginalized, it will be an “employee” issue.
Some managers say they are still nervous of giving employees flexible schedules. They fret about the domino effect. “What happens if I let Anna, the office star, work from home one day a week and then Sarah, who is less great, wants it too? Soon the whole office will be clamoring for flextime.”

Well actually, no. Accountants Deloitte and Touche have been in the forefront of what they call customizing careers (there are as many names for flextime as there are schedules). And they found that at any given time only 10% of employees actually wanted alternative schedules.
As for the Anna-is-great-but-Sarah-not-so-much argument that’s frankly a red herring. If Sarah isn’t doing her job well, that’s a performance issue not a schedule issue. Moreover, if you start measuring your employees solely on their results and you set them clear benchmarks, rather than measuring them on how many hours a day they spend in the office, it is actually easier to see whether or not they are being productive.
Flexibility works. For men and for women. For people with children and people without children. It is no longer a favor to be handed out like candy at a kids’ birthday party, it is a sound business strategy.  

If you found this interesting, you can register for this free Webinar on Friday, October 23 at 1p ET to hear Katty Kay explore how the 21st-century workplace is evolving, the role of women in this revolution and how companies that “get it” will acquire a huge competitive edge.

Photo by: Providence Public Library

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