Most of us, at some point in our lives, have worked in organizations that are rigid and unyielding. You know, cubicle world — acres of gray carpeting bathed in florescent light. We all know these kinds of work cultures breed mediocrity. They deaden the soul (not to mention productivity and creativity). A company may be able to survive being managed that way, but it won’t soar. Because top talent will have no interest in working there.
Savvy leaders understand that talent is the single most important factor in a company’s success. You can have all the basics down, but without the right talent, you’ll just be running in place. And to attract and retain that talent, you have to work with them to customize their jobs. This makes people feel valued, which leads to peak performance. The key is to be flexible and collaborative with hours and location. Telecommuting works for so many smart reasons for so many these days.
The benefits of collaborating with talent to design their optimal workplace flexibility include:
1) Buy-in. When you work with people to customize their work-life fit, you aren’t imposing anything on them. You’re treating them with respect and trust. Which will be returned. And when talented employees decide to work from home three days a week, they are making a serious commitment to the organization. Instead of working for you, they are working with you. This builds enormous buy-in and a better workplace culture.
2) A Broader Talent Pool. If talent doesn’t need to be in the office, your talent pool is suddenly global, not local or even regional. You can build productive relationships with talent across the country or across the globe. With social networks, intranets, project-specific groups, and teleconferencing, distances become increasingly irrelevant. Caveat: There is nothing quite like face time, and creative sparks often fly when people are actually together in a room brainstorming. Telecommuting is a tool to be used judiciously.
3) Higher Morale. Studies show that organizations that offer workplace flexibility have less absenteeism and turnover, and higher levels of engagement and productivity. Again, it comes down to control. We all need to feel in control of our lives, and by working with talent on flexibility, you grant them real control. They feel trusted and valued, and their investment in the work, and in the organization, grows.
4) Smart Strategy. Many organizations today view workplace flexibility as a strategic move, not an employee benefit. The bottom line is that progressive companies have an easier time attracting and retaining talent. People with a lot to offer want to work at companies that treat them like adults and have empathetic, energetic, progressive cultures. On a more prosaic level, telecommuting can save costs on supplies, real estate, and utilities. Unilever, for example, permits 100,000 employees — virtually its entire workforce except for factory workers — to work anytime, anywhere, as long as the work gets done.
5) Value Added. Truly engaged employees don’t leave the job behind when they’re off the clock. They carry their current projects with them 24/7, and are always open to new inspiration or insight. Ideas are all around us. Employees who are telecommuting, or working on schedules that they helped design, are out in the world more, open to input, away from an office environment where stagnation can set in. An employee with a well-rounded, active life will bring value-add to any job, and may well find inspiration – that can then be brought to the project at-hand — in surprising places.
Telecommuting can be a challenge for managers. They can’t just approach someone in person to discuss an issue. Balancing schedules and workloads can also be complicated if you’re managing telecommuters. But the results are worth it. It’s all about treating people like grownups. Workplace flexibility is an awesome leadership tool. Use it.
A version of this post was first published on Forbes on 08/18/2013