Advocates of work flexibility know that there are all sorts of reasons employees need flex in order to be successful both at work and at home, as parents, caregivers, military spouses, retirees, and so on. But too much emphasis on the reasons workers need flex can be distracting. The truth is, flex is a business tool that improves productivity as much as it does employee well-being.

Nonetheless, when employers take an interest in flex, their focus tends to be on the “why”—which reinforces the idea of flex as an accommodation or perk rather than a business strategy. Flex had been a part of the culture at MIT Sloan for many years under this model.  But in 2013, Peter Hirst and his team of 35 at Sloan’s Office of Executive Education were faced with an office move due to campus construction. Hirst started to look at the issue of flex from a new perspective: instead of considering employee personal needs for flex, he focused on whether his staff could do their jobs flexibly from a practical angle—and found the answer was yes, at least to some degree, for the whole group.

With that in mind, Hirst came up with a set of guidelines for his team around flex that don’t take “why” into account. Hirst shared his tips with us in a recent conversation:

  • Every meeting is presumed to be a virtual meeting, using any necessary technology to facilitate participation from remote employees. “We do make exceptions to this rule in special cases, but but only when face-to-face is specifically required,” Hirst notes.
  • Hirst encourages team bonding by hosting (and financing) monthly all-staff lunches. Wednesdays are designated as in-office days for everyone who can make it in.
  • To alleviate any sense of isolation for remote employees, Hirst has enlisted the help of two Double Telepresence Robots in the office. At 1MFWF, we’ve poked a little fun at these gadgets in the past, but Hirst says they genuinely add to a sense of connection in a way that traditional video conferencing doesn’t. Remote staff use them to simulate presence in the office by “popping” into a colleague’s office spontaneously, and even “attending” the monthly team lunches.
  • Flexibility is not just about place, but also time. Staff are encouraged to work at the hours that make sense for them. But Hirst adds, “If I send an email at 2am because that’s a good time for me to be working, I can’t expect an immediate response. Instead, we make sure there’s a collective understanding that responses may take up to a full working day. And otherwise, urgent items have to be identified as such.”

Employers often fear that if they give their staff carte blanche to work flexibly, the office will become a ghost town. But the whole point of work flexibility is enabling employees to find the best work style for their individual needs—and for some people, that means sticking with the status quo. While everyone on Hirst’s team flexes informally in some way or another, about a third of this his staff generally stick to a classic schedule and predominantly work in the office.

Hirst acknowledges that we still have a ways to go before flex becomes seamless. Double Robots aside, technology in particular can be a stumbling block: it’s not unusual for virtual meetings to begin late due to glitches. While Hirst and I connected over the phone we ourselves stumbled through multiple interruptions in cell service. And there’s still no good solution to the “tyranny of email,” which is a productivity drain.

Nonetheless, Hirst is certain the benefits of being open to new ways of working outweigh any drawbacks. He cites this year’s record-breaking Boston winter as a case in point: his staff was able to work through the snow without a hitch, whereas other employers across the city either shut down completely or required their employees to waste time and energy on lengthy commutes.

Other units at Sloan are taking note of Hirst’s team’s success. And the courses on offer from the Executive Education non-degree executive programs also reflect new ways of working; for example, Communication and Persuasion in the Digital Age is “designed to help executives and managers become successful communicators in person and in virtual contexts—from public speeches and group discussions to video conferencing and social media.”

When implemented with best practices in mind, work flexibility helps maintain business continuity, improve productivity, and grow the bottom line. As more employers look to flexibility to solve impending business dilemmas like office relocation or construction, severe weather, and other interruptions to normal business operations, they’ll see work flexibility as much more than an employee perk.

Hear more from Peter about his approach to flexibility in a recent Fox News interview:

photo credit: istockphoto.com