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Better flexibility

Discussion board: Flexi working

Abhilasha Ojha 

From 30 June 2014, all employees in the UK have the legal right to request flexible working. A new agreement signed between employers' federations and workers unions in the digital and consultancy fields in France stipulates that employers must not pressure employees to be electronically available at non-work time. As corporations across the globe toy with flexible working, we ask experts to enumerate the processes a firm needs to put in place to make flexi working work

"IT, HR need to join hands to enable flexi working"

Ruchi Sinha
Assistant Professor, Organisational Behaviour, Indian School of Business

You need to understand that there are two critical components that make up "flexi" process at work - flexible timings and 'telecommute', also referred to as the work from home option. At the outset the process is complicated because it requires a lot of systems to be in place. While tracking the number of hours may be easy (with employees working an hour or two extra) for companies, checking if employees are actually working from home may not be a simple task. There can be a fear among managers of a genuine lack of discipline that can take over if the employee opts for the work from home system. Other reasons why corporations all over the world are reluctant to execute this is that there is a loss of accountability and there is little way to understand whether it will really work or not. Think about it: companies inherently believe in keeping calculated checks on employees not because they don't trust them but because they feel such systems will allow them to gauge the performance levels and understand just how each and every employee contributes to the welfare of the organisation.

The need to have a system that can combine flexi-working hours with the option to work from home is critical because the current 'sandwich' generation is looking after both kids and old parents.

The best way to approach this system is to understand which task is high and which is of low interdependent variety. For example, a print journalist has low interdependence in that he or she doesn't need to have very high information exchange - she doesn't need to work closely with the sales and marketing teams on a daily basis. But a marketing head in the same company may not enjoy such a process simply because the job is of high interdependence. Ditto with an IT company; a web design employee who is continuously upgrading the design of the website etc may be allowed to work from home three times a week but the same process will not work for someone in the IT department who needs to check on a daily basis whether everything is functioning properly or not.

Once the HR department demarcates the high and low interdependence jobs, it needs to work closely with not just the managers but also the IT department to proceed with checks. While training of managers who have so far believed in the traditional way of working is important, it is equally critical that the IT department works out processes wherein the progress of work can be ascertained. Additionally, HR could look at quarterly reviews instead of the annual, set monthly targets for the employees, have dedicated reviews and meetings with them and arrive at better performance systems on the whole.

"Focus on results, not on activity or face time"
Sandeep Bidani
Executive Director, HR, IBM India/South Asia

With services moving to mobile and cloud, work-life flexibility and integration is a huge opportunity. As a multi-generational workforce becomes part of every global organisation today, flexibility and proactive employee well-being have become cornerstones of corporate HR philosophy. One such important policy is 'work from home'.

This option provides greater flexibility to employees to manage work more efficiently while cutting on aspects like commute, which take away a large part of the day and create capacity. The flexibility comes with a significant responsibility - an in-built component of accountability, trust, quality of output and investment in providing infrastructure to enable this. This also requires a shift in the mind-set of the organisation as well as the employee. Flexibility has to come in different options; employees should be able to choose to work from home, a few days a week, a few days a month or for a period due to exigencies. What decides this is a balance of employee and the organisational need. Organisations must remain focused on results, not on activity or face time.

Something that sets IBM apart is the degree to which the company has built flexibility into its workforce practices. Our work tools, from cell phones to the intranet, have profoundly changed how work gets done - all traditional assumptions about workplace and contribution have had to be rethought. Technology provides tools that help in building a bridge and establishing a proper network system to be in place. IBM has "Connections", a social tool for collaboration, engagement and communication with the workforce. Another such tool, IBM Sametime Chat, helps collaborate instantly with social communications using integrated voice, data, and video and even allows online meetings that offer high-definition audio and video and document, application and screen sharing. Similarly IBM SmartCloud helps in enabling employees to access relevant data as well as login into calls and meetings from anywhere - all we need is a robust internet connection.

However, for roles that are customer facing, client system driven or set in repetitive, structured delivery environments may not have all the options. Where applied, the organisation needs to instil a culture that propagates accountability for work, where social tools help employees blend in seamlessly with the organisation's culture and needs.

"Work from home is good in theory but difficult to pull off"
Rajendra Ghag
Senior EVP, Chief Human Resource Officer, HDFC Life

It is a good concept in theory but in practice, working from home is difficult to pull off. As HR heads, we are constantly trying to understand just who needs this option, how to make it the absolute win-win situation for the company and the employee but here's the hard fact: it is not easy to execute. And that could be a reason why many big corporations are rolling back the option of working from home. However, if companies really need to offer this option, they have to do so with precision. While the employee shouldn't use the option to take the company for granted, the organisation, on its part, cannot keep tracking the employee's movement continuously. This would rob the very essence of flexible working.

A good idea is to combine the idea of flexi hours and mobility (or working from home). At HDFC Life, flexible hours is popular. The reasons are varied, from avoiding traffic snarls to looking after parents to dropping kids to school. But there is a caveat: If employees opt for flexible hours, they have to ensure that they stick to the time of their choice for at least one or two months. Once a request comes to the HR department, we check thoroughly on the cross functional aspect of the employee's job profile. If his job profile requires him to have meetings with sales, operations and some other departments on a daily basis, flexible hours have to be very carefully crafted so no one suffers.

The option for working from home, to be honest, is granted in rare cases in our company. So when an employee wanted to work from home because her son was taking the board exam (a critical time for any parent), we allowed that employee the option of working from home. We understood that in this particular case the employee had no other support system at home and was genuinely concerned about her child's welfare.

While ensuring that cross functional dependence was low, in this particular case, we also worked closely with the IT team to ensure that everyone was constantly kept in the loop about the employee's work timings and deliverance of projects etc. We wanted to look at the engagement of the employee with others in the office on a daily basis but we were careful not to monitor constantly. There was clear communication between the department head and the employee and also the HR and the IT department that kept refining the process. Employees are trained to understand that in such cases we have a KPI-centric approach.

"Execution is key to the success of a flexi-work strategy"
Arun Sehgal
EVP (HR), GSK Consumer Healthcare

Work flexibility should make sure two things: one, the organisation's objectives are met; two, the individual employee's need for flexibility is also met. There's no doubt that ensuring such a process can help in bringing in greater degree of empowerment. However, location and time flexibility at work doesn't work for all industries and you cannot have the one-size-fits-all approach while implementing this

Where such a process works is in regional offices. What I mean is, if there's an office in Singapore and there's interaction between China and Australian markets, the employee can easily work from home. In this case, the productivity can also grow and you possibly cannot be working round-the-clock to keep up with different time zones.

In our company, for instance, such a process will be of very limited help since we are part of a highly competitive industry and most of our employees are expected to work from office. That said, we do consider flexible working on a case-by-case basis.

For such a to work in a company, there has to be a well-crafted execution plan. The approach should be focused on output and not on clocking a certain number of hours. The HR department needs to be clear that the employee opting for such a measure doesn't need face to face meetings. There should be clarity on the duration, or the period for which the employee needs this working option. Under no circumstance should the employee not be accessible to other stakeholders.

One also needs to ensure that the IT governance policies, which ensure that employees don't misuse the internet while sitting in office, extends to employees who work from home. A good way to do this is having virtual meetings on a daily basis with the employee who opts for this 'flexi' process.

Once the stakeholders arrive at a decision of holding the meetings, there should be no question of the 'flexi' employee postponing it. These prerequisites should be in place to ensure that such option empowers both the individual and the organisation.

First Published: Mon, July 07 2014. 00:12 IST
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