Why are we still not OK with Flexible and Remote Working?

Why are we still not OK with Flexible and Remote Working?

23 Mar 18 4mins Jon Midmer


Why is flexible and remote working still such a bone of contention? Over the past month or so, I’ve been struck by how emotively clients and candidates continue to talk about the subject. I’ve also noticed that there’s a simmering body of literature dedicated to it, much of it with an axe to grind and often couched in shrill tones. And all this more than a decade after the concept was conceived, and a good five years since (at least from a technological standpoint) there should be no problem to make it work for traditionally office-based roles.

As far as I see it, the flexible and remote working (“FRW”) debate has mainly centred on issues such as productivity, engagement, team dynamics and, lately, company attractiveness and reputation. In many senses, it’s right that there’s been a debate, not least because the way people can and do work differs vastly from in years gone by. The construct of nine to five within the four walls of an office is an artificial and, for many, obsolete construct predicated on a bygone, industrial view of work. However, while it’s good to re-examine the opposing views, I think we also need to dig deeper to understand why many are still so against what could, or even should, be a no-brainer.

PJs at 10 in the morning?

It’s not hard to see why many companies have reduced FRW and some (including some of the world’s largest) have curtailed it altogether. FRW arrangements can be and have been abused; some who do not work in this way resent those who do; and many who do feel they’re expected to be available beyond their agreed work hours. Moreover, while employees may be more productive when they’re alone, many have argued that we should focus rather on the quality with which tasks are done, not how efficiently or quickly.

Meanwhile, it takes real effort to foster collaboration via FRW, which critics say is crucial for innovation, and it’s a real struggle to re-create remote water-cooler moments. Finally, an entrenched view held by some is that FRW can actually be the worst of all worlds from a work-life perspective: less camaraderie with colleagues, fewer boundaries, work bleeding into home life, more interruptions from family members, and increased stress. Many have argued – authors Stephen R. Covey and Greg McKeown included – that work-home boundaries should be clearly demarcated: the home is sacred, and “being there but not being there” erodes family life.

A societal shift

And yet, on a basic level, given the huge rise of dual-income households and single parents with young children over the last generation, surely FRW is a nothing more than a logical, indeed inevitable response to a societal shift? And surely organisations that refuse to cater to the needs of working parents will not only lose talented individuals who need to work around their personal circumstances, but will also portray a lack of humanity?

If we think about the employee value proposition, FRW has been shown to boost productivity (as a result of fewer distractions) and improve engagement and advocacy (as it’s clear that you’re taken care of, given a perk and being treated like and adult). In terms of talent maximisation, not only can it increase employee retention (as not everyone provides FRW), it can also cultivate the conditions for more women in senior leadership positions, and enable men and women alike to cope with the competing demands of children, long hours and travel commitments.

Unpalatable truths

I think, though, that it’s time to own up to some of the real reasons why some people are against FRW, reasons that in my view we need to deal with. First, this mode of working is now not just offered to those who need it, but also to those who want and even demand it. Survey after survey has shown that one of the aspects millennials prize above all is flexibility. However, older cohorts who were not offered this perk, and who did their time in long-hours cultures when they were rising through the ranks, feel put out by the fact that younger generations see FRW as a right rather than a privilege, and simply have it better than they did.

Second, in an era in which we should value output and impact, not presenteeism, the dirty fact is that many office jobs don’t take a full 40 hours a week, and a lot of people spend a lot of time creating work (in the negative sense of the word) to fill the time, rather than focusing on doing what will really make a difference. Third, however technologically enabled we’ve become, it’s not that we can’t be innovative or collaborative remotely, it’s that chaining direct reports to their desks is a proxy for (bad) management. Managers’ weaknesses are always shown up more in a remote relationship, and setting clear, agreed goals requires more thought and follow-up than simply swinging by someone’s desk to shoot the breeze.

Finally, the fact that many organisations offer FRW, but not on Mondays or Fridays (I can only assume it’s in case workers sneak off for too many long week-ends) and are even up in arms when the perk is taken up by the many rather than the few, points to another major reason behind an aversion to FRW: a lack of trust between organisations and their employees, compounded by an inability to track performance. To move this whole debate on, can I suggest we confront these unpalatable truths, before we bang on about FaceTime versus face time, or how or where people work?