Unlimited vacation and unlimited parental leave: all the cool kids are creating bigger and better ways to give employees the right to choose when, where and how they work. This is utopia. This is the goal of the flexible work movement.

On the other hand, what’s making headlines just as much as these new initiatives is their potential to fall flat. Ironically, many media outlets predict companies will fail to reach such a utopia because of the unspoken limitations of unlimited time off work.

So, are these radical flexible work policies too good to be true?

The Fine Print of Open-Ended Flexible Work Policies

While the companies leading these initiatives tout it as worker freedom, the ambiguous nature of unlimited time off actually comes with fine print. The most commonly cited reason unlimited time off doesn’t work is that in lieu of written limitations, team and managerial influences pressure workers not to take full advantage of unlimited time off (or any time off at all).

Misconceptions and negative perceptions of flexible work still persist. Some managers may not support or take part in unlimited time off, and some team members may not want to telecommute. That means the rest of the workforce will feel influenced by their superiors and peers to sidestep partaking in the initiative, continue working when they do or work longer hours to make up for time off.

And that means not all employees have equal access to such flexible work opportunities, which means flexible work is treated as a perk, not a right. As a result, it defeats the entire purpose of open-ended flexible work policies in the first place.

It’s Not Failure, It’s Just the Beginning

You could call it pessimism or skepticism, but the truth is, all of these flexible work initiatives could fail. And if companies let them, these failed culture changes will simply become headlines feeding objections to flexible work.

But it’s just the first round. It’s still progress. Just like any business pioneer or early adopter, that first step into change could be filled with setbacks and disappointments. What matters more is how companies address the next iteration (or whether they do at all).

In order for radical flexible work to flourish, you need real culture change: trust, top-down support and maybe even a shift from measuring productivity and performance by output instead of time at a desk. Until you achieve those things, you still need rules.

Empower Employees by Setting Limitations

The Global Telework Survey by PGi found that the top reasons knowledge workers don’t telework is simply because it’s not an option in their role. This could be a reflection of the fact that more than half of knowledge workers do not have a formal flexible work policy. Much like the ambiguity of unlimited time off, flexible work decisions are then made or influenced by individual departments and teams.

In other words, if you don’t make the rules, someone else will make them for you. If you’re not creating a flexible work policy that is fair, clear and represents your company’s values, then your teams and departments are going to do it for you, and that may not represent the kind of flexible work culture that you want to create.

Instituting an organization-wide flexible work policy with clear expectations and rules in place is one way to ensure employees are equally empowered to take time off or work outside the office. This could even just be as subtle, yet powerful, as adjusting “unlimited” language to include minimums. Until flexible work is protected by federal laws, U.S. workers still need company policies that clearly protect these rights, just like HR protects workers from discrimination or their privacy.

Head to The Future of Business Collaboration for tips on empowering telecommuters and creating a better work-from-home policy that employees can get behind.

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