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When employers are more progressive than employees

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Image taken from: http://money.cnn.com/

As if you didn’t have enough to worry about with the weak economy and trying to hold onto your job: more employers than ever in the United States are offering their employees the benefit of flex hours, but their employees are refusing to take advantage for fear they’ll get the axe! Recent research in the US by the Center for Work-Life Policy has found that fewer workers are accepting offers of flex-time—scheduling their own hours combined with working from home—because they feel the need to be present in the office to make sure their employers know they are working, even if the employees are in fact more productive working on their own schedules.

Wow. I’ve read plenty about employers not wanting to offer employees alternative work arrangements, and I believe that is still very common, but until now I’d never heard about workers refusing the benefit. I mean, I know employment conditions are bad in many places, but that kind of worry would make me reconsider whether the job was worth it at all. This story makes me feel especially lucky to have a progressive employer!—one that doesn’t make me feel like an employee benefit is actually a threat to my job.

Employers and employees should understand the several issues involved here:

  • Employers’ attitudes toward alternative scheduling
  • Employer-employee relations and communication with respect to modern work initiatives and employees’ acceptance
  • The dubious legality of disciplining employees for taking advantage of an employer-provided benefit

This story comes from the US, but it applies equally here in Canada. Many employers worry that if they let their employees work from home or outside of regular operating hours, the workers will slack off and the work won’t get done. This is ironic, since many employees who do enjoy a flexible work arrangement claim that they are actually more productive than when they’re tethered to the office or restricted by a 9-to-5 schedule. What’s more, employees on flexible arrangements often work more hours than they would at the office, maybe because they save time by not commuting, by arranging their personal lives better, or they simply enjoy their work more when they’re at home or away from the office. Employers that offer such arrangements surely understand these concerns, but they must also be willing to work with employees to make them feel comfortable and to take full advantage of the arrangement.

Employers must make the most of their performance management practices and supervisor-employee communications to bridge the divide. Now, this might seem obvious, but if an organization does decide to offer employees a flexible work arrangement, it should not make employees feel anxious for taking advantage of it! Just because an employee is away from the office, does not mean that she or he is procrastinating, or that you cannot continue to control her or his work. On the other hand, employers that do offer alternative work arrangements can make employees who use the benefit more comfortable by communicating with them regularly and making sure that they receive the same feedback as in-office employees—maybe even by video-conferencing every once in a while.

Another issue is how employers treat employees who accept flexible work arrangements. When employees work under the threat of firing—whether perceived or real—their stress increases and their performance suffers, which is pretty much the exact opposite of what an employer wants. Moreover, an employer that threatens an employee with termination or actually terminates an employee without a valid reason will likely get into a lot of trouble if the employee complains to the employment standards department. Again, I hardly need to say that this is the sort of thing employers really want to avoid!

It seems to me that fears over losing control of employees or poor employee performance are not really fears about employees, but about management, who feel they are incapable of properly supervising flexible workers. I don’t mean to judge. Workforce management is in a transitional stage, moving from a traditional workplace-based, 9-to-5 model to a more flexible modern model, where work takes place whenever and wherever the worker is. The new model is based on results, not hours worked, and this is a big and unprecedented change. So it’s no surprise that many employers and their managers are unprepared for it.

This isn’t exactly a warning; I don’t expect that many employers out there are firing workers because they decided to work from home with the boss’s blessing. The message is just to make sure that your employees are on the same page as you when it comes to alternative work arrangements. Workers must know what you expect of them, and they must still feel connected to the office when they’re not actually there. Also, flexible arrangements won’t work for everyone. Some employees might just feel too anxious about it regardless of how comfortable you try to make them feel. Others simply won’t make the productivity gains—or they might suffer from those things that employers fear: procrastination, lack of communication, poor results, and so on. As always, it’s important to know your employees, along with their strengths and limitations.

Adam Gorley
First Reference, Human Resources and Compliance Editor

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Adam Gorley

Adam Gorley is a copywriter, editor and researcher at First Reference. He contributes regularly to First Reference Talks, Inside Internal Controls and other First Reference publications. He writes about general HR issues, accessibility, privacy, technology in the workplace, accommodation, violence and harassment, internal controls and more. Read more
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