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Deal with it, flexi-work is here to stay

FLEXIBLE work - on paper - sounds like the perfect solution for companies facing a manpower crunch and workers who increasingly value work-life balance. But the reality is that telecommuting is easier said than done.

FLEXIBLE work - on paper - sounds like the perfect solution for companies facing a manpower crunch and workers who increasingly value work-life balance. But the reality is that telecommuting is easier said than done.

Some job scopes and industries make it trickier to implement flexi-work. Workers also fear that it will jeopardise career prospects, while employers may be prejudiced against people they don't see.

Human resources specialists share with The Business Timeson how to get around the hindrances of flexi-work.

Common worry

One commonly-cited worry by employers is that innovation and productivity will decline if staff work from home.

Internet giant Yahoo sparked off controversy when chief executive Marissa Mayer decided to ban working from home back in 2013. When approached by BT, a Yahoo spokesman stated that the policy was about "returning Yahoo to greatness", which meant creating a work environment that fostered "creativity and collaboration". Yahoo added that it was not a hard-and-fast policy and affected very few people at the time.

Sherwin Chia, human resource lecturer at SIM University, says that Yahoo's case must be put into context. The new rule is likely to refer to workers who work from home permanently when the nature of their job requires teamwork and innovation, he says. "Such work is non-routine . . . team members must be able to come together quickly to generate ideas or solutions. High performing teams are likely to be highly interdependent, coordinated and cohesive."

This decreased face-to-face interaction is one of flexi-work's biggest setbacks, says Dominic Salomoni, director of Robert Walters Singapore. "This can affect communication, teamwork, team synergy and potentially even cause remote workers to feel isolated."

Trust factor

The biggest factor that holds back both staff and employers is a lack of trust. Without seeing with their own eyes, many employers fear that remote workers are not working when they should be.

Likewise, employees worry that they are making a bad impression when they are not physically present.

Of course, it is unrealistic to expect a rise to a leadership position if one works from home on a permanent basis. But something is wrong if one is penalised even though the arrangement has been agreed upon by the manager and the company.

It all boils down to the attitude of top management, says Dr Chia. "Does management implicitly support such policies? Are there negative perceptions by managers towards people who participate in these flexi-work arrangements?"

He adds that leaders must work with line managers to adjust perceptions or understand their concerns that may include supervisory and team management difficulties.

To measure productivity more accurately, Dr Chia suggests that companies move towards a continual performance management system instead of the usual one-time annual performance appraisal system.

In such a system, managers and employees can have regular progress updates, as well as discuss and resolve work issues. This way, the efforts of both office-based and remote employees are similarly recognised and rewarded.

Matter of time

Generally, specialists concur that the benefits of flexi-work, such as greater work-life balance and lower staff turnover, outweigh the drawbacks.

With technology such as Skype and teleconferencing being used on a regular basis, it is just a matter of time before flexi-work becomes commonplace.

To simplify matters, companies can include certain clauses in their flexi-work policy, says Mr Salomoni. For example, employees may only be allowed on the flexi-work arrangement if they have been with the company for a certain period of time or have gained approval from management. Even for fast-paced, creative industries that require teamwork, flexi-work can still be implemented if consensus is achieved.

Dr Chia suggests that managers and team members find common ground on when the presence of all team members are required during project cycles and the possible channels of communication during flexi-work. If there is a concern that employees will abuse the system, he says, that can be a sign that the organisation culture is dysfunctional or inappropriate.

This has more to do with organisational weakness, rather than a problem with telecommuting. "Overall, flexi-work should improve work conditions and actual work productivity, but this must fit the needs of the workforce in accordance to the way work is performed," concludes Dr Chia.

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