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The Real Reason We Need to Work Flexibly

18 August 2014

I’ve been reading everywhere lately that offering opportunities for flexible working is the key to our diversity issues. The tired, old message goes something like this — if we only catered better for the working mums, they’d be more willing and able to slog it out and become CEOs.

I mean, I get it. I’m not a parent, but I have a dog and if I don’t get home in time to feed her dinner she gets all sad face on me. I do believe we should offer working mums more flexibility in their roles. But I think we’re missing the point. That isn’t the real reason we all need to work flexibly.

Let me start by asking  — where and when was the last time you had a fantastic idea? At your desk, surrounded by a mountainous pile of work? In a meeting, listening to someone repeat themselves like a pull-string doll? Unlikely. In fact, according to Innovation Scientist Belle Cooper, the ideal environment for innovation involves very low levels of noise, minimal clutter and hustle bustle, and ideally the presence of no other humans (Cooper, 2014). innovation is at best, a solitary activity. Given the increasing prominence of open plan offices and everyone’s obsession with busyness, could we be killing the next big money making idea, one exceedingly loud, distracting phone call at a time? Don’t believe me? Ask Stephen Wozniak, Co-Founder of Apple: ‘I don’t believe anything really revolutionary has been invented by a committee. Work alone.’ (Wozniak, 2007). So — want your employees to innovate? Send them home.

I think the fear is that if employees work from home, the omnipresent couch will beckon and they won’t get any work done. As a person who works from home relatively often I’d like to set the record straight right now — that does happen. However, there are three main reasons why I don’t consider this to be a problem.

Firstly, I’m a knowledge worker — therefore, my work is inextricably linked to knowledge and — good ideas. Given the aforementioned link between working from home and innovation, I could (and in fact, do) generate, plan, and action better ideas when I’m at home.

Secondly, even if your staff member wastes one hour on Oprah, they will more than make up the time in saving on the work commute, and not having coffee machine chats.

Thirdly, working from home usually prevents Parkinson’s law. Back in the 1950s, Parkinson examined the military civil service and noted a curious phenomenon — despite a diminishing amount of tasks to complete, work expanded to fill the time available for its completion (Parkinson, 1955). Basically, if you gave someone a set amount of work and told them they would need 38 hours to complete it — like magic, it would take 38 hours to complete. When working from home, there is far less risk that your employee will consciously or subconsciously take any longer than is absolutely required to perform a task, as there will always be a plethora of other great activities to move on to. However, if they’re in the office it is a whole different story. Therefore, if you want more productive and efficient employees — send them home.

I was recently reading that Australia desperately needs to increase its productivity (AFR, 13 March 2014). Well, Australia, I’ve solved your problem. Make flexible working the norm, not the exception, and see your productivity and innovation soar.

REFERENCES

Cooper, Belle. The Science Behind Your Ideal Work Environment. http://www.fastcompany.com/3026715/work-smart/the-science-behind-your-ideal-work-environment, Accessed 31 July 2014

Wozniak, Steve (2007). IWoz. New York: W. W. Norton & Company

Parkinson’s Law (1955) from The Economist http://www.economist.com/node/14116121, Accessed 31 July 2014

Good Intentions Don’t Count without Gender Rules. Australian Financial Review. 13 March 2014 http://www.afr.com/p/opinion/good_intentions_don_count_without_wOGj3Z4tSezSBQjDMUfFaJ

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