April 1 2013

It Turns Out that Flexibility Requires, Well, Flexibility

Mercury One | Prosum

Carrie L. Lukas

Like Motherhood and apple pie, workplace flexibility is something Americans overwhelmingly recognize as a good thing.

To succeed in the competitive global economy, we need dynamic companies that give their workers the freedom to innovate. This kind of workplace flexibility also promotes worker well-being: American workers — particularly women — need to be able to balance their responsibilities at home and on the job and bosses should be open to creative solutions. We are assured that such flexibility isn’t just good for employees, but by creating more loyal, happy, healthy workers, it’s good for businesses’ bottom line too.

Yet we need to be careful not to become inflexible about flexibility. The outcry in reaction to Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer’s recent decision to end telecommuting throughout her company suggests that too many view flexibility as a one-way street, with workers deserving such leeway, while managers and bosses are supposed to march along.

As a work-from-home mother of four, I’m acutely aware of all the benefits of a flexible work environment. Jobs that revolve around a computer can be done from about any location and at any time. That means a couple hours focused on the kids mid-day can be made up for at night. As part of the management team for a small non-profit organization, I’ve seen first-hand how this flexibility — and a focus on actual productivity and outputs rather than time logged in office — can breed a sense of loyalty and while fostering creativity among hard-working staff.

Not all businesses and jobs, however, lend themselves to such flexible arrangements. Managers in a store need to know that enough workers will be on hand to help customers. Nurses need to be in the room to help patients; mechanics, to fix cars; and chefs, to make food. Smart managers may work with their employees to set schedules, but flexibility can only go so far.

Flexibility can also be abused. Most telecommuters work diligently, but others use it to slack off. Bosses need the ability — indeed the flexibility — to determine which employees can be trusted with flexible arrangements, and which employees needs the structure of supervision and a fixed schedule. Reports out of Yahoo! suggest that the company had too many loosely-affiliated, low-productivity telecommuters. Mayer needed to cut costs and have a renewed focus on rebuilding the struggling company, so she eliminated telework entirely for the time being. Undoubtedly, she’ll pay a price for this decision — she’ll lose some good workers as well as some bad — but it was her call to make.

Businesses need to be able to make such determinations. That’s an important reason for government to stay out of the business of setting the terms of employment. Ironically, one can see an increased push for government to, of all things, mandate flexibility. Workplace mandates — such as paid leave and flexible schedules — are sold as benefiting women and giving workers the options they need and deserve, but they actually make it harder for employers and employees to customize relationships that benefit both parties.

Telling employers that they must provide six weeks of paid maternity leave, for example, may sound like a boon to women, but it stops the discussion about the relationships that women actually want and pushes a one-size-fits-all mentality. Some women may prefer to come back to work earlier, with a reduced schedule for a longer period than six weeks. Others may prefer higher take-home pay while working and no paid time off. These tradeoffs should be on the table. Politicians promising to force companies to provide benefits like to pretend otherwise, but benefits create real costs and result in lower take-home pay and fewer job opportunities, particularly for workers with fewer skills or who want to work part-time.

America has benefited from a dynamic, growing economy. Flexibility has been a big part of that equation. Moving forward, let’s just make sure we keep in mind what that term really means.

Carrie Lukas is the managing director at the Independent Women’s Forum (IWF | www.iwf.org).

 

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