Where’s the ‘P’ in Flex Work?

There isn’t one — but there should be!

The “p” stands for “process,” a frequently overlooked and essential component in work flex success.

Most companies see the “t” — technology — in work flex (i.e., they realize that they have to invest in the right technology to facilitate telecommuting, virtual collaboration and other flex work options).

But according to this Harvard Business Review article, many companies fail to reap the benefits of flexible work because they focus too much on technology — and not enough on process.

It’s time to get the balance right.

Like most other aspects of business, successfully executing your workplace flexibility strategy requires the right mix of technology and process. Without the right tech tools, communication and collaboration is impossible. But without the right processes, technology can’t adequately address the unique challenges and circumstances flex work presents — especially when it comes to atypical work hours and lack of face-to-face communication.

The best way to strike the right balance? Create detailed “rules of engagement” in the following five areas to ensure that your flexibility offerings benefit both your employees and your organization.

1. Planning processes:

  • Assess the project or work for suitability. Not all types of work are equally suited to flexibility. When designing your strategy, systematically evaluate positions to identify which are the best options for flexible start and stop times, virtual collaboration, telecommuting, job sharing and/or a compressed workweek.
  • Assemble the right team. When hiring for flexible positions or creating virtual work teams, choose carefully. Create selection processes for identifying people who are self-motivated, disciplined and who communicate well in writing. Assign responsibilities accordingly, matching tasks to personalities and skill sets (e.g., give communication-intensive tasks to extroverts; assign introverts to independent work such as research and analysis).
  • Budget time accordingly. Despite everyone’s best efforts, physical distance and extended hours can derail projects. Stay on track by being proactive. When creating timelines, give team members the opportunity to review and respond to them before committing. Build in time cushions to accommodate technology snafus and time zone conflicts.

2. Communication processes:

  • Prevent miscues and misinterpretations. Whether it’s in space or time, distance increases the likelihood — and amplifies the potential consequences — of miscommunication. So be careful to match the message to the medium. For example, address sensitive or complex issues with more robust channels (in-person, video or phone), and reserve email or instant messaging for nonurgent purposes.
  • Establish guidelines. Create routine communication procedures, such as requiring employees to prepare meeting agendas or weekly project update emails. Spell out rules for professional, frequent, friendly and detailed communications, regardless of the medium used.
  • Ensure managers are available. If employees are working extended hours away from the office, they must feel comfortable contacting management outside the typical 9-to-5 hours. Create guidelines to ensure that managers are available to answer calls and respond promptly to employee inquiries.

3. Coordination processes:

  • Work with time zones. If you have a geographically dispersed workforce, make location work to your advantage. Create work processes that flow naturally from east to west. Use the same principle to extract maximum value from local employees who work flexible schedules.
  • Accommodate special needs of asynchronous collaboration. When your employees don’t communicate in real time, email may not meet their needs for efficiency and productivity. Create virtual shared spaces and detailed processes for uploading and sharing work files, updating statuses, responding to updates and tracking progress.

4. Training processes:

Design policies and training procedures that prepare flex-work employees and managers for success:

  • Provide introductory and ongoing training on how to use technology tools.
  • Create a formal process and handbook that teaches employees how to succeed in flex-work.
  • Provide management training for how to lead asynchronous and/or virtual teams.

5. Measurement processes:

When implemented properly, flex-work strategies can yield substantial cost savings, lower employee turnover, higher productivity and increased employee satisfaction. Commit to regularly reviewing and, when necessary, modifying your approach, processes and/or technology to keep your initiatives on track. Create metrics for quantifying the results your flex offerings deliver — and ensuring they benefit all parties involved.

The Harvard Business Review article mentioned above states that “the number of remote workers in the U.S. grew by nearly 80 percent between 2005 and 2012.” Market intelligence cited in a recent Forbes article supports this growth, estimating that “the worldwide mobile worker population will increase from just over 1 billion in 2010 to more than 1.3 billion by 2015.”

The writing is on the wall. Workplace flexibility is not a “fad” or a “nice thing to do” — it’s a business imperative that will affect your company’s competitiveness, growth and survival. Make sure you combine the right technology with the right processes to make your flex-work strategies work for everyone.