Close this search box.

Balancing Flexibility and Innovation

Share This: 

IBM recently rocked their employees’ world in a controversial move. The company that pioneered telecommuting announced it was bringing employees back to the office.

It was a radical concept when IBM began installing remote terminals in employees’ homes in the 1980s – but today, about 25 percent of American workers work remotely most or all of the time. Email, chat software and video conferencing help manage teams of people who may never actually meet face-to-face. And research suggests remote workers are happier, more productive and log more hours than employees who work in the office. Companies benefit from reduced costs and the ability to attract top talent from around the country.

With all of the advantages, however, technology companies have found there’s something remote teams don’t do that well. While they may be laser-focused on the task at hand, they don’t tend to have the impromptu conversations that can spark new ideas and lead to product innovations and process improvements. Steve Jobs called it the water cooler effect, and it’s why he encouraged spontaneous interactions with and between his staff. It’s the reason Google has putting greens and pool tables at its offices, and why Best Buy, Yahoo and others have co-located their teams in recent years.

The accelerating pace of change is a main driver of this trend. For some technology companies, the need to innovate and stay ahead of competitors can trump everything else. For the rest of us, the lessons may be more subtle, but just as important.

Workforce Models Will Continue to Change. As leaders we need to be alert to the changes going on in our industry and how that impacts our ability to compete. The workforce model that worked for you last year may not work today, and what works today may not work next year. The number of remote workers, offices and onsite employees may be different for your company than your peers, or even for different departments within your organization.

What’s Good Business is Good for Employees. Sure, Millennials appreciate flexible hours and the freedom to work from home. Who doesn’t? But they also want meaningful work, positive role models and the chance to learn and that sometimes requires them to dress up and show up before 9 a.m. And just as employees strive to achieve work-life balance, companies must always balance the changing needs of the business with employees’ needs. As employers, we need to be flexible while remaining focused on how we’re going to stay competitive and profitable.

Technology Has Limits. Mobile technologies, cloud computing, social media and other innovations have transformed the way we work and communicate, and will continue to improve our productivity. We may soon be working alongside cobots, robotic devices designed to assist us with routine tasks. However, technology isn’t a substitute for human interaction and creativity. Your employees will always value being part of a team, and your customers will always value personal relationships.

Do you have remote workers? If so here are a few lessons I’ve learned about managing home-based employees.

  • Not all employees are good candidates for remote work. It requires self-discipline, organization skills and the ability to solve problems independently.
  • Not all managers can happily manage remote employees. “Old school” managers may have trouble communicating by text and email rather than face-to-face.
  • Tools for measuring productivity are a must when managing home-based employees, who may work different hours than your onsite staff.
  • Just like implementing a new software package, change management becomes critical when rolling out a dramatic shift in how people work.
  • Offering a work-from home option can help you attract top talent for less, or retain a valued employee who would otherwise leave due to life-stage events, but…
  • Working from home is not an easy perk to withdraw – so proceed with caution.

A blended workforce may be the answer to achieving your goals for both productivity and collaboration. Feel free to share your insights and observations on this topic on our LinkedIn page.