Whether it’s shifting hours, telecommuting, going part-time, or choosing some other option, flexibility is a popular trend in workplaces around the world.
It’s also an increasingly common topic for discussion among workers, managers, and researchers as they try to figure out which kinds of flex are most effective and whether this trend is here to stay.
To provide a taste of the direction these conversations have headed during the last decade or so, here are six TED Talks about work flexibility and its effect on the world of work.
“Why Do Ambitious Women Have Flat Heads?” – Dame Stephanie Shirley at TED2015
Shirley gives an inspiring talk about her life and the experiences that motivated her, from her early days as a child refugee from Nazi Europe to her life as a businesswoman and philanthropist.
When it comes to flexibility, Shirley knows her stuff. In 1962, she founded Freelance Programmers. She established this software company to get around the gender discrimination of the day, building a business of and for women. In fact, in the early days of her business, she would change her name from Stephanie to Steve on business development letters so people would think she was a “he” and not a “she,” which allowed her to get her foot in the door.
Shirley recruited qualified women and structured the company as a home-working organization. She helped bring women back into the workforce after career breaks and pioneered many flexible work methods, job sharing, and profit sharing.
It was a long road, but she built a successful software company, all starting with her embrace of flexibility. Her advice? Surround yourself with first-class people and people that you like, and welcome change.
“The Power of Time Off” – Stefan Sagmeister at TEDGlobal 2009
Sagmeister is a graphic designer who runs a studio in New York. His nod to flexibility is that, every seven years, he closes his studio for a one-year sabbatical.
All people spend about 25 years of their lives learning, 40 years working, and then 15 years in retirement, he says. He decided to cut off five of those retirement years and intersperse them between the working years.
For one of his sabbaticals, Sagmeister spent a year in Bali, and he found that his time away from work actually inspired him and improved the quality of his work when he returned. He provides several examples of others who have prospered as a result of taking sabbaticals, including a chef who runs a restaurant for seven months of each year, then closes down for five months to experiment with new dishes.
He suggests that people who are interested in this kind of flexibility talk to someone who has taken time away from work in a similar manner and learn more about the pros and cons.
“Go Ahead, Tell Your Boss You Are Working from Home” – Nicholas Bloom at TEDxStanford 2017
Bloom, the Eberle professor in the department of economics at Stanford University, knows some people make fun of working from home—or “shirking from home,” as they call it. But he believes that remote work can be good for both employees and companies, and he’s done the research to prove it.
He conducted a test with CTrip.com, China’s largest travel agency. The company was interested in moving some workers to a remote model to save money on office space in expensive Shanghai, so they tested productivity differences between a telecommuting group and office workers.
When the test was over, it showed that the productivity of people who were working at home was 13% higher than that of their colleagues in the office. The remote workers didn’t have to worry about a commute that would lead to a late start or early end to the workday, and they didn’t have to deal with office distractions. The company also found that “quit rates” dropped by 50% for the telecommuters.
Even if you just do it one day a week, Bloom said, you really should give remote work a try. There’s not much to lose and a lot to gain.
“The Remote Working Revolution has Arrived—Join Us!” – Justin Jones at TEDxRichland
Jones talks about his personal experience moving from an office job to a remote position to frame his discussion of this kind of flexibility.
Most workers have to deal with the “iron triangle” of employment, Jones says. The three parts of that triangle are where you live, where you work (meaning your employer), and what you do for work. Usually, you can choose two of those items, but the third will be out of your control. With remote work, however, people can break that iron triangle and select all three.
Employers are starting to see the benefits of this as they deal with expensive office space and a shortage of talented workers. At the same time, and as shown in the previous talk, remote employees tend to be more productive.
If you’re interested in remote work, he says, first check what your employer already offers. Then ask. You may be surprised at how readily your company will embrace your plan.
“The 21 Hour Work Week” – Anna Coote at TEDxGhent
Coote’s proposal is a bit different, in that it doesn’t deal with individuals seeking flexible work options. Rather, she proposes that all of society shift to a shorter workweek.
It’s not money that makes the world go ’round, Coote says. Rather, it’s loving, caring, learning, and inventing, and all of those things take time. A 21-hour workweek would give people more time for living.
Gradually changing from the standard 40-hour week most people have now to 30 and then 21 hours over the course of a decade would solve environmental, social, and economic problems, she says. For example, the shift would allow more people to have jobs, but also let people be closer to their families.
Long hours aren’t inevitable, and they don’t determine competitiveness, Coote says. They are a matter of choice. If we choose to do so, as a society, we can slow down, share our work, consume less, and live more.
“The Remote Work Revolution” – Kavi Guppta at TEDxUWA
Much like Jones, Guppta is a proponent of remote work. Talent is borderless, he says, and work should be, too. Most work in the service sector right now can be done from anywhere, and allowing that kind of flexibility is good for everyone.
Not everyone will want to be a remote worker, Guppta says, but the choice should always be there. The idea is that, instead of designing our lives around work, we should design work into our lives.
To make this happen, individuals must develop the organizational and communication skills they need to be effective telecommuters. Companies should start small and scale up, being careful not to discriminate when it comes to who can take advantage of remote opportunities. And governments should pass legislation that encourages remote work and protects employees when it comes to healthcare and retirement.
No other generation has had the freedom to carve out its own lifestyle, Guppta says. Now is the time for employees to ask their companies for remote work options and then work together to make it happen.
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