April 2008 Archives
Societal shifts, changes in the nature of work, and technological advances have blurred the separation of work and life outside the office. Blackberries, text messaging, and remote connections give work free reign on our personal lives – so why shouldn’t the pendulum swing both ways. After all, the less stressed employees feel, the more productive they will be at work and home. Who doesn’t want happy, well-rounded employees?
By giving employees the latitude they need, employers may be surprised by the return on investment. It’s difficult (if not impossible) to schedule doctor’s appointments, get insurance quotes, coordinate childcare, and the like outside the 9-5 Monday through Friday hours. What choice are employees left with but to take care of personal business at the office? “Homing from work” is a phrase that describes the use of work time and resources to take care of personal matters. Another label is “reverse telecommuting,” which Dilbert creator Scott Adams describes as a time to pay bills online and make copies on your employer’s dime (The Joy of Work: Dilbert's Guide to Finding Happiness at the Expense of your Co-Workers). Although Dilbert’s “definition” is a little narrow, it illustrates how personal life can erode productivity at work – if you let it.
Most managers realize that some personal matters must be attended to at work (outside the lunch break). Acknowledging that small chunks of employees’ time will inevitably be spent scanning presidential election news or communicating with a spouse throughout the day saves employees the trouble of coming up with excuses and expending energy navigating away from Kayak or Flickr as quickly as possible every time you walk by. Instead, by working in a supportive environment, employees can channel that extra oomph into their work. A recent article in Self Magazine reviews the trials and tribulations of minimizing the distractions one’s personal life has on work. If employees abuse flexibility to the point that work is not getting done, then it’s time to take a deeper look at what’s going on and how the employee can better budget their time.
Granted, giving employees the freedom to squeeze in personal matters during work hours isn’t appropriate in every situation, but in most circumstances, empowered employees balance their responsibilities and appreciate their employer’s trust. In return, employees might not groan the next time you ask them to postpone their lunch plans for a last minute meeting and you may notice employees arriving refreshed on Monday mornings and already briefed on the week’s upcoming activities because they connected to their work email remotely on Sunday afternoon. Remember, the central idea is that flexibility done right can lead to increased productivity.
Flexibility is especially important with the influx of younger employees who seek it and more experienced employees who know they want independence and aren’t willing to work for a company that won’t provide it. If you’d like to give increased flexibility a try with your employees, keep in mind that your organizational culture must match the underlying premise of the flexibility you are trying to accomplish. For example – should employees be allowed Internet access for personal reasons? If you plan to give employees more freedom but your company has a "no personal email access" policy then you may have a problem. Full Internet access at work opens a different can of worms – visions of employees wasting their days away on Facebook, watching YouTube videos, and instant messaging back and forth with friends may come to mind. On the flip side, employees may be able to work more efficiently if they can scan through an email from their sibling during a break and then shift their complete focus back to work when they’re done.
However you decide to provide employees with increased autonomy, ensure it matches the culture of your organization, that you have full support from management, and the flexibility is clearly communicated to employees. Give a little to your employees and get a little more in return – isn’t that the way it should be? Now get back to work!
The U.S. Department of Labor reported Friday that employment was down another 80,000 jobs in March, for a total decline of almost a quarter of a million jobs in the first three months of 2008. With an unemployment rate of 5.1 percent, almost eight million people are unemployed -- that's 1.1 million more than this time last year, and many analysts agree that there's more of the same to come.
In a recent survey by Financial Executives International and the Zicklin School of Business at Baruch College, two-thirds of the CFOs surveyed identified layoffs and reduced hiring as areas for cutbacks. A Hay Group study, as cited by the Society for Human Resource Management found that along with freezing salaries and cutting staff, employers are making changes to healthcare and retirement benefits, as well as to training and development programs.
Here's where we get into dangerous territory. While there's no denying that the current economic downturn may necessitate some belt tightening, employers should be careful not to secure this quarter's financial results at the expense of the organization's long-term success.
Charles T. Scott, in Workforce Management, cautions employers not to overreact and advises them to keep both business and human capital goals in mind when coping with the "inevitable cycles" that occur in the economy. He points out that for more than half a century, downturns have lasted an average of only 11 to 18 months, and comments that when things heat back up again, the "ongoing war for talent" will still exist.
In today's business world, attracting and retaining the very best employees can provide a competitive advantage. Turnover is expensive, the costs associated with recruiting and training new employees are high and unanticipated side-effects of cutbacks may wind up hurting the organization in the long run. A Perth Leadership Institute white paper indicates that this type of cost cutting can lower employee morale, hamper innovation, create additional turnover, prevent potentially successful programs from being proposed and negatively affect the longer-term competitiveness of the organization.
In the featured interview for our March podcast, Dr. Rebecca Kelly talked about organizational values and asked whether employers truly value their human capital. One comment she made really stuck with me. She said, "When you purchase a $2 million piece of equipment, you call that valuable. We have to take care of that," and then pointed out that we don't always take the same care with our employees.
When finances get tough, do you stop changing the oil in your car to save $39.99 every three months? Do you stop doing preventive maintenance on your high-tech manufacturing equipment? Do you cancel your subscription to the firewall and antivirus services on your PC or stop downloading critical software updates? Of course not - the costs of expensive repairs, fuel inefficiencies, shortened lifespans, performance decrements, security failures and hard drive crashes would far outweigh the short-term savings realized through these poorly conceived "solutions."
Organizational leaders give plenty of lip service to employees being their "most valuable assets," but actions speak louder than words. Whether in good economic times or bad, it would be ill-advised to cut the health and wellness benefits, stifle the opportunities for growth and development, eliminate the flexibility, reduce the level of employee involvement or give short shrift to the recognition programs that keep employees and organizations performing at their best.
Surely human beings deserve to be treated at least as well as machines.