Polar Vortex Renews Debate on Flextime

It’s early in the morning, the thermometer has dipped below zero, there’s snow up to your kneecaps and your car is covered with enough ice to service a cocktail bar.

Scenes like this have become all too familiar, as the “polar vortex” has ravaged cities across the country in what has been one of the worst winters in recent memory.

This inclement weather has forced some employees and companies to exercise flexible work policies that allow employees to work from home. For employees and companies that do not have much experience with telecommuting, or don’t have effective flexible work policies in place, a shift from working in the office to working at home can cause many challenges.

“If someone has telecommuted before or telecommutes regularly and they have set up a place at home that functions like their office, they can establish a behavioral work pattern,” said John Challenger, CEO of Chicago-based outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas. “But if they are working on their dining room table or on their home computer, they might not be used to it, and it can be a lot harder. Something like that could create distractions because it is such a different routine.”

Employees at companies that already have established flexible work policies, such as pharmaceutical company Eli Lilly, do not have a problem moving their workspace from the office to home. In fact, Janice Chavers, director of HR communications for Eli Lilly, said the company’s telecommuting program has resulted in higher productivity and has improved employees’ quality of life.

“For our employees, flexible work schedules are about lower stress levels, better health, a stronger focus on work while working and greater trust. All of this leads to loyalty, inspiration and innovation,” Chavers said.

One of the biggest concerns that organizations have with setting up flexible work policies is ensuring that their employees will maintain the same work ethic at home.

“You have to find people who are capable and have the right mindset to work from home,” Challenger said. “Smart companies need to examine and understand who can work from home and who cannot. There is trust, but it shouldn’t be blind trust.”

Jody Thompson, co-creator of Results-Only Work Environment, agrees that the question of where someone works is irrelevant as long as the employees maintain the same level of output.

“Organizations need to shift their focus to managing the work and not where the people are working from,” Thompson said. “Getting clear, measurable results and holding each person accountable is what’s important. Getting bogged down on who gets to work from home, how often they get to and whatnot is a tired, old 20th century conundrum.”

While flexible work policies were first instituted to improve the safety and comfort of workers, there are also great financial benefits to telecommuting.

“It can cut down commuting times, cut down the costs of rental space. If put in the right way, companies can really gain a competitive advantage,” Challenger said.

Regardless of whether more companies adapt or expand flexible work policies, those companies that already have them are certainty thankful to have a brief reprieve from the brutal weather this winter.

“I certainly can say that I place a higher value on flexibility after this winter than ever before,” Chavers said. “It’s given me so much peace of mind knowing that I don’t have to face the elements.”

Eric Short is an editorial intern at Talent Management magazine. He can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.