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What a Flexible Workplace Has to Do With Trust and Creativity

Marissa Mayer wants everyone at the office. Other companies don't even have offices. Where do you fit?

Chegg, a Silicon Valley online textbook rental service, introduced unlimited paid vacation; so far, no one has abused the privilege. When I was running software companies, women on maternity leave were told to come back when they wanted to, on a schedule of their own devising; they never let me down. Strategies like these inspire terrific loyalty--but I wonder how many companies use them?

By 2025, Generation Y and its successors will comprise more than half the global population and 75 percent of the workforce, according to consulting firm A.T. Kearney. And 80 percent of them want to be able to work flexibly. How many, I wonder, will get what they want?

Although many companies these days are comfortable demanding constant attention from their employees, few are at ease with the idea that this needs to be reciprocal. And many still persist in thinking this is a women's issue when it isn't. It's a talent and retention issue. Here's why:

1. Flexible working is smart.
Letting your employees out into the world to absorb information, notice other products, talk to a wide range of people about any number of subjects is how they stay in touch and alive. Cooping them up in offices and meeting rooms for hours or days on end makes them dull and boring.

2. Ideas arise in unexpected circumstances.
There's plenty of evidence that people do their most imaginative work when looking away from a problem: driving home, in the shower, walking the dog. If you don't want your people to have ideas, keep them at the office.

3. Everyone has family.
A senior partner at an investment bank once asked me why he couldn't just hire single people; that way, he hoped, he wouldn't have to consider childcare pressures. I told him to remember that, while one can choose whether or not to have kids, no one can choose whether or not to have parents. Gen Y and subsequent generations will face a lot of demands from elderly parents who need time and attention. If you want to keep smart people, you have to work with that. 

None of this means that offices are irrelevant or that there isn't immense value in bringing people together under the same roof at the same time. There is. This is part of how you get great work from people. But it isn't the only way. Companies are--not surprisingly--like people because they are made up of people. And just as individuals are more creative when allowed freedom, the same is true of businesses. It all depends on whether you trust them, or yourself, enough. That is reciprocal too.

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Last updated: May 9, 2013

MARGARET HEFFERNAN

Margaret Heffernan is an entrepreneur and author. She has been chief executive of InfoMation Corporation, ZineZone Corporation, and iCAST Corporation. In 2014, she published her fourth book, A Bigger Prize: How We Can Do Better Than the Competition.




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