How to Have a Flexible Workplace and Still Get the Job Done
It's easy to become enamored with the cachet of Silicon Valley companies and wonder if you can replicate their way of life and fun company cultures. But what if napping rooms and yoga coaches aren't a fit for your business?
I received this email from a HR manager at a company facing just such a dilemma:
Currently there is a disconnect between all managers on how they manage their employees and apply benefits, handle performance evaluations, and bend the rules. Even though we do have a written handbook with outlined policies and procedures, these are regularly bent or broken. I'm concerned that we are not only creating animosity within our organization but also leaving ourselves open for potential legal liability. Our CEO has been awed and inspired by recent articles from some of the top creative companies that employ this type of work style successfully. However the reality of our situation is that over 50 percent of our work force is based in manufacturing. The freer model may work well for companies in Silicon Valley, but it doesn't seem to fit into our blue-collar midwestern culture. Everything I have learned in HR is centered around consistency and documentation. Can you please guide me as to whether or not this still holds true, and if so, why consistency is still important? Or is this train of thought rooted in the past and the movement forward is to a more relaxed view of consistently applying policies, procedures, and guidelines throughout our organization?
She has some really important concerns. In some things, it's absolutely and legally necessary to be 100 percent consistent. For instance, sexual harassment and illegal discrimination should never be tolerated. Pay must always be done correctly. You also need to be fair and treat like situations likewise. But you need to evaluate what "like" situations are.
For instance, the HR manager above is faced with a CEO who wants a cool startup culture, but 50 percent of the company's employees work in manufacturing. Often in this situation, a more structured environment--where people show up on schedule, do their work, and go home--is the norm.
When You Can Bend the Rules...
But what about the other 50 percent of employees? The ones who aren't manufacturing? The rules can be different for these people for a couple of reasons. It's probably going to be OK for your marketing director to work from home on Tuesdays, because she can do 99 percent of her job over the phone and with her computer. Additionally, it's OK for your exempt employees to cut out of work an hour early because they'll be following up after the kids go to bed anyway.
And should two exempt employees be treated identically? Not necessarily. What you need to be looking at is performance. If John is always on top of things, is highly productive, and is available whenever he's needed, you can allow him a lot of leeway. But if Jane is hard to find, doesn't return calls when she's out of the office, tends to fall behind on her projects, and is generally unproductive, you can rein her in. It's all about performance.
This means you do have to treat your employees as individuals. It also means you need to document performance--otherwise Jane might claim that she's not allowed to work from home but John is because he's male and you're a horrible sexist. You need to have it documented that she isn't easily accessible when she's working from home, while John is.
...And When You Can't
With your manufacturing employees, of course, cutting out an hour early means an hour's less pay for that person and--depending on the set up of your place--lowered productivity for the whole team. The point is, the consequences of the actions aren't the same, so they shouldn't be treated the same.
Managing this way is more difficult, no doubt. It's much easier to follow zero tolerance policies and not have to think through employee requests, but it limits your work force unnecessarily.
SUZANNE LUCAS | Columnist
Suzanne Lucas spent 10 years in corporate human resources, where she hired, fired, managed the numbers, and double-checked with the lawyers.