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Why Workplace Flexibility Is The Way Forward For Asian Companies

06/04/2016 8:15 AM IST | Updated 15/07/2016 8:26 AM IST
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Many Asian companies, be it in India or elsewhere, often suffer a dilemma when it comes to managing their workplaces in changing times. On one hand, they aspire for their young workforce to perform in conditions that allow them to be as productive as their Western counterparts. On the other, they balk at loosening their grip on the reins they've long held, under the assumption that such control ensures employees work the hours they were paid for.

The employees also suffer from a dilemma. On one side, they want to put in dedicated efforts so they can rise up the corporate ladder. On the other, they have to balance domestic and societal responsibilities, which isn't always easy given that social-infrastructure support systems are still not as developed here as they are in the West, not to mention that there are fewer working hands at home in this age of nuclear families.

The research bears out that happy employees are more productive employees. Besides, if your company doesn't offer flexibility, others will...

You cannot keep everyone happy in such conflicting situations, and Asian corporates are seeing their fair share of disgruntled employees. But here's the thing: many of these people could have yielded so much better if they were given the flexibility to manage their timings in a way that allowed them to address conflicting demands at work and home without compromising on either.

A few years ago, this suggestion would have been dismissed easily. But now, there is growing acceptance of the benefits of workplace flexibility, which may include working from other locations; during other timings; during other days; or on temporary functions. It is easier said than done, since the work-process has to fit in with flexibility. But even where work does not traditionally offer room for flexibility, a bit of redesigning of the work-process can achieve that.

Many employers aren't asking "how", they are asking "why?" If they let go of the control they wield from 9am to 5pm, might employees not be tempted to shirk? Yet some Asian workplaces are able to see the larger picture. And the results are good. Some companies are trying out flexible practices if the work-processes allow it. The technology sector always led in this due to practices inherited from the Silicon Valley, but other sectors like finance are also working along these lines.

Simply sitting physically at a desk is no barometer of productivity and concentration; your mind could still be a million miles away.

The basic reason why results are good is because it serves a very fundamental need--ensuring that the are people are happy. And the research bears out that happy employees are more productive employees. Besides, if your company doesn't offer flexibility, others will and that's where many talented employees will eventually drift. The average attrition rate across sectors in India is about 20%, while in neighbouring China it is about 17.7% according to one survey. These are big numbers.

A boost in productivity

Employees in flexible work arrangements are able to achieve a better balance in their professional and personal lives. They are able to do more both at work and at home and are no longer so stressed about conflicting demands on their time. As a result they can concentrate better on their work without as many worries nagging at them. And since work is no longer an immoveable obstacle for other duties, they feel more committed and motivated. Think about it: Simply sitting physically at a desk is no barometer of productivity and concentration; your mind could still be a million miles away.

work stress

Measuring output rather than desk-time

Secondly, when you start valuing people more for their output, then their productivity rises even further. In many organizations, the longstanding culture of valuing people for the time spent in office is changing to valuing people for getting the work done. Many Asian companies have traditionally had high regard for employees who left the building last, regardless of whether the work was commensurate with the time spent on the premises. Those who managed to achieve as much if not more in less time, on the other hand, were looked at less favourably. Thankfully, this myopic perception is changing. In this era of high competition and with the decline of the earlier protectionist business environment, the criticality of productivity and output is standing out more than ever. Companies just cannot afford to let people to sit on their desk and be unproductive. Finally, the work has to get done and there is a better chance of that objective being met properly if the employee devotes enough focus on it.

Companies are realizing that workplace flexibility may save them the overheads of running full-steam office premises.

Conserving resources

Next, companies are realizing that workplace flexibility may save them the overheads of running a full-steam office premises during times when high competition is often eating into operating margins. If some of the overhead cost can be transferred to the employee's home, isn't that a saving in itself?

Further, happier employees are aiding employee retention. It is no rocket-science that older employees are cheaper than new recruits, not to mention the time spent in bringing the new joinee at par in the work. If key people are retained, it's a win-win situation for both the organization and the person. One might also add that given the woeful public infrastructure in Asian cities, be it public transportation or road conditions, people spend on an average three hours a day commuting to and from work. That's a waste of time... if the person was at home they'd be using that time to work more or accomplish something else more worthwhile than sitting in a bus or car and breathing in traffic fumes.

Keeping up with changing times

Lastly, the era of gender-specific roles is passé. Today, men and women share several domestic and societal duties. One of India's leading banks recently allowed women the flexibility to work from home for a year. But even men have caretaking duties, especially if they have young children. Slowly, some Indian organizations are wising up to the need to institute paternity leave for new fathers, an excellent initiative in these evolving times.

Unfortunately, workplace flexibility is seen as a stopgap measure rather than a permanent ethos.

Challenges in implementation

Unfortunately, however, workplace flexibility is seen as a stopgap measure rather than a permanent ethos. Once an exigent situation (such as caring for a newborn) passes, the employee is expected to join back the usual regimen. Also, flexibility is still seen in more operational-process roles, not for front-line work. There is a cultural reason for this, since relationship-oriented Asian communities still prefer face-to-face interaction when it comes to sales. Nothing firms up the relationship more than meeting the counterparty, and companies fear compromising on sales in case it impacts closure of the deal. Perhaps this will re-orient slowly towards an initial face-to-face meeting backed by video-interactions later. Other challenges also remain, such as setting up security systems at the other location to ensure data confidentiality is maintained, ensuring that connectivity is of a quality that ensures no downtime, and that ancillary tasks do not suffer since the person is not physically in office. But these are not unsolvable either.

Bottom-line: Flexibility creates happy employees, and happy employees make productive employees. That ideally results in more green, than red, in the company's results. Some Asian organizations are seeing sense in it while the will hopefully see the light in the near future.

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