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How employees benefit from flexible workplaces

Companies are increasingly adopting flexible workplaces to attract top talent, to the benefit of all employees

Jan 4, 2016

by Elizabeth Hames

Illustration Molly Little

On any given day, Dan Evans can walk through the corridors of his Calgary-based creative agency, Evans Hunt, and struggle to find someone – anyone – toiling away at their desk. A scene like that would freak out a lot of managers, but that’s exactly the way Evans likes it.

Good management skills apply whether people are sitting beside you or whether they’re working from home.

Evans Hunt is one of a growing number of companies unchaining workers from their desks. Known as “flexible workplaces,” arrangements range from allowing an employee to work from a boardroom or common area instead of their desk to giving staff the option of choosing where, when and how they work. Evans Hunt has opted for the latter. That means some days the office looks more like a ghost town because the majority of its employees are working from home, a coffee shop, a plane – anywhere but their desk.

Proponents of flexible workplaces say it not only reduces real estate costs (fewer in-office workers means smaller offices), but it makes for a happier, more engaged workforce all around. A recent study by WORKshift, a not-for-profit dedicated to workplace transformation, found that the ability to work flexible hours increases employee engagement 89 per cent.

While it may be nice to turn your office into the Merry Old Land of Oz, what’s in it for the employer? For starters, it takes employees out of their cubicles. A misguided (I think it’s fair to say) Robert Propst invented the office cubicle – which he called the Action Office II – in the 1960s as an answer to the predominant open-office concept of the time. He said that the chaotic open office “saps vitality, blocks talent, frustrates accomplishment” and leads to “unfulfilled intentions and failed effort.” Little did he know that, a half century later, his words would better describe his own misbegotten creation (although, to be fair to Propst, he criticized the perversions that befell the Action Office II due to corporate cost-cutting). It turns out that the productivity of employees who are confined to a three-square-metre grey box all day is stymied. Who’d have thunk it?

Even without flexible workplaces, employees have found ways to get around the oppressive nature of their Action Office IIs by either taking over a board room or taking their work with them on a lunch break or at the end of the day. “We’ve created work spaces that are not reflecting the way people are actually working in the office,” says Robyn Bews, executive director of WORKshift. “If you ask people where they get their most productive work done, many times you won’t get a ‘from my assigned cubicle’ answer.”

So employers who adopt flexible workplaces are not only getting happier employees, they’re getting more out of them. But the benefits to the employer don’t stop there. Flexible workplaces are becoming increasingly important to attracting and maintaining top talent. “What I’m hearing from a number of organizations is, ‘We recognize that this is becoming a table stakes conversation for attracting and retaining employees,’ ” Bews says.

That’s certainly true for Evans Hunt. The agency realized that potential employees, especially those working in creative industries, have different expectations about how they want to work. So they adopted a flexible workplace to ensure that people feel like they’re getting a lot more from the work environment than just their take-home pay. That change in attitude opened the door to a flood of talent that would be unavailable to a company with a strict 9:00 to 5:00, Monday to Friday policy. “We have a lot of people here who previously might have preferred to be freelancers because they can manage their own schedule,” Evans says. “[People] who are talented but now they’re comfortable working in a group environment.”

The benefits of flexible workplaces extend to all corners of the organization. So why aren’t companies jumping on the bandwagon like Vancouverites in playoff season? Fear. When your employees are spread out all over the city – and in some cases, different cities – it can be difficult to keep tabs on them to ensure they’re not wasting precious paid time sharing cat videos on Facebook. But if you’re a good manager, you can figure it out.

“For me personally, if I hear a manager say, ‘How do I know when an employee’s working if I can’t see them?’ it’s kind of a sign to me that they don’t have the skills they need to manage people in general,” Bews says. “Because being able to see somebody sitting at their desk tells me nothing about what they’re actually producing.”

Instead, measure your employee’s performance on their output, not how long they’re sitting at their desk. Communicate with them regularly to make sure they have enough to do, or that they’re not taking on too much, and trust that they’re doing the job you hired them to do. “To make a flexible work environment work, the absolute number one ingredient you need is trust,” Evans says. “Even if five per cent of the staff are abusing [the flexible workplace arrangement], 95 per cent of the staff are feeling completely empowered by it.”

But maybe you have trust issues. Don’t fret. With the Internet and smartphones, there are about a million ways to stay in touch with, and keep tabs on, your team. “Equipping a remote worker to be fully productive and connected to their team has never been easier,” says Ron McKenzie, senior vice-president of business at Shaw Communications.

One of these is Shaw’s SmartVoice, which enables employers to keep in touch with their remote workers via phone, video conference, instant messaging or even shared desktops. Not only that, SmartVoice’s presence feature allows you to see what your employees are up to, even when they’re out of the office. “If you are in the office you might be able to see that another team member is on the phone – so you won’t try to engage in a conversation,” McKenzie says. “But if you are working remotely you can’t walk by their desk – with SmartVoice and Presence you can see their status is set to ‘on the phone.’ ”

SmartVoice is even available for smart phones, so you can keep in touch with workers when they’re on the go. Evans says Evans Hunt often takes advantage of the fact that people live on their smartphones these days, so he knows he can reach employees in the evening if he needs to.

But even with all the technology available to him, Evans still feels a pang of anxiety when he’s searching for someone in a specific department and no one is at their desk. “I might ask myself, ‘Is everybody really at home working, or are they doing other things?’ ” says Evans. But he has a quick and easy way to solve that mystery: his smart phone.

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