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What’s Latitude Got to Do with It?

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!

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About this Entry

This page contains a single entry by Jessica McKenzie, MS published on April 24, 2008 3:05 PM.

The High Price of Cost Cutting was the previous entry in this blog.

Are We Stressing Out Our Kids? is the next entry in this blog.

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