A while back, Marissa Mayer (Yahoo) stated that: “To become the absolute best place to work, communication and collaboration will be important, so we need to be working side-by-side.” This is a strong statement that does not find much evidence in research. The current blog post will bring new facts to the table, based on an interview study of 53 workers in two Finnish organizations.
Whether or not to allow for workplace flexibility has been a hot topic in everyday life of organizations, not to mention in media. Managers are often reluctant to let go of sight of workers, and are maintaining their control by not offering workplace flexibility. The underlying reasoning behind this might be the belief that distant workers are slacking off or that collaboration quality suffers when people are scattered around in time and space.
In this study, we found quite the opposite. Flexible workers felt a strong commitment to their organization, and sought to find ways to increase their productivity in any way they could. With less offered flexibility, on the other hand, workers’ productivity was more likely to suffer. Do you find this surprising?
Let me start to explain the organization with lots of workplace flexibility. We found that along with increased flexibility, workers were able to adapt their working time and location for the advantage of their own and workgroup productivity. Temporal and spatial flexibility enabled workers to perform duties to coincide with peaks in their personal energy level and to manage their time and space to optimize focused work or various forms of collaborative tasks. They could for instance begin to take care of some thought work at home before entering the more hectic office to continue with the more interactive tasks. In brief, these workers adapted to better ensure time-task fit as well as space-task fit, to stay responsive and to adapt to work group demands.
On the contrary, in the organization characterized by a less flexible work culture, workers more commonly adapted based on organizational norms than on their current work situation. Less control of own work time and space did not allow the workers to adapt for improved individual and work group productivity. People had for instance to be physically present at the office for meetings, just because this was the acceptable norm. “If you need to collaborate with a person, it does not work if you are home” was the general attitude. In the more flexible organization, on the other hand, virtual meetings were frequently kept, to accommodate everyone’s flexibility. Hence, with a more flexible work culture, it did not really matter where people were, as long as they were in the same physical or virtual space. In a less flexible workplace, on the other hand, people had to spend more time on coordinating both physical space and time. Of course, there will always be tasks that are more effective to take care of face-to-face, but in those cases, people can always accommodate and come into the office. So to conclude with my opening remark, yes, reduced face time can indeed increase opportunities to interact and cause productivity gains for workers and their organization.
This study was conducted together with Prof. Karen Myers from University of California, Santa Barbara. We are looking forward to continue with this research so stay tuned for more results!