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Jul 15, 2011

Blame it on Best Buy.

Back in 2005, the nationwide electronics retailer came up with a new wrinkle on how to manage the company’s Minneapolis corporate headquarters staff: it allowed workers there to come and go as they pleased, working whenever (and wherever) they pleased just as long as they got their job done.

This Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE), “seeks to demolish decades-old business dogma that equates physical presence with productivity,” BusinessWeek reported in 2006, because “the goal at Best Buy is to judge performance on output instead of hours.”

ROWE has been lauded as a breakthrough concept (although other companies, like IBM, had similar programs at the time), but still, how many organizations are truly embracing it?

The new trend is “ultraflex” jobs

According to the Christian Science Monitor, quite a few.

In today’s worldwide marketplace – with advances in technology, changing demographic needs, and the drive to cut costs – ever more firms are ditching the 9-to-5 routine for a new and more independent form of work…

Although the recession may be causing a temporary dip in telecommuting, according to a recent WorldatWork survey, the number of firms offering the option has jumped. Some 63 percent of organizations now offer some kind of telecommuting, according to the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). That’s up eight percentage points in a year. Moreover, 20 percent of organizations now allow full-time telecommuting, up from 17 percent last year.

Workplace flexibility is no novelty for top executives and certain professionals. What’s changed, experts say, is that such perks are being extended to the entire workforce.”

This trend — dubbed as ultraflex jobs by the newspaper — seems to be spreading to more and more workplaces where the need for an ongoing physical presence just isn’t all that necessary, as the Monitor points out.

Take the case at BDO USA, a Chicago-based accounting and consulting firm with 2,500 employees. In a strategy called BDO Flex, begun five years ago, individuals suggest arrangements that fit their needs and the firm’s, says Barbara Taylor, the firm’s BDO Flex chair and general counsel. Beyond minor day-to-day changes in a work schedule, employees can adopt yearlong flex arrangements: If they log, say, 50- to 60-hour weeks during the busy tax season, they can trim that back to, perhaps, 20 to 30 hours per week the rest of the year – with proportional adjustments in pay. Moreover, 85 percent of the workforce telecommutes, mainly part time, says Ms. Taylor…

Certainly, overhauling work structures was expensive, acknowledges BDO’s Taylor, who doesn’t specify how much this “very worthwhile” investment cost. Moreover, major changes can be unsettling, experts say: Not only can they confuse some employees but can also worry some bosses, who fear employees may slack off if they work remotely.”

Need for a flexible workplace is growing

That comment about employees slacking off if they work remotely bothered me, because my experience as a remote employee working in a company of remote employees here at ERE Media is that remote workers actually put in more time on the job rather than seeing it as an opportunity to goof off and take it easy.

Yes, I understand the worry about employees slacking off, but can’t they do that in a regular office environment just as easily? Jeez, Scott Adams has made a career out of showing how regularly (and easily) that happens in his Dilbert comic strip, and he’s spot on in that regard. If someone is going to fiddle around, they’ll do it anywhere, and it’s highly doubtful that your hard working employees will suddenly become less so if they are allowed to get into a ROWE-like work program.

Whether you call it ultraflex jobs, or ROWE, or something else entirely, the notion of a virtual and flexible workforce that doesn’t need to toil in a regular office environment is growing in our post-recession drive for greater workplace productivity. The only question I have is whether your company is forward-thinking enough it get in on this. My last one wasn’t, and that’s one of the reasons why they lost me. Here’s hoping you don’t work for a narrow-minded organization that falls into that camp.

The pitfalls of re-training the unemployed

Of course, there’s more than the growth of flexible work schedules in the news this week. Here are some other HR and workplace-related items you may have missed. This is TLNT’s weekly round-up of news, trends, and insights from the world of HR and talent management. Yes, I do it so you don’t have to.

  • The promise — and pitfalls — of retraining workers. The focus on re-training the unemployed for new jobs gets a close look this week in the Los Angeles Times, and according to the newspaper, it’s not always all that successful. “Like hundreds of other American towns ravaged by the recession, Greenville, Michigan learned how losing jobs can spread like a contagion through families and institutions that form the heart of a community... Greenville, though, is more than a sad story. It’s a petri dish for testing one of the most widely prescribed remedies for reviving troubled communities — job training … But Greenville’s experience is both an encouraging tale of the potential for revitalization and a cautionary story of how hard it is to make job training work on a broad scale — especially without a comprehensive government plan to make sure that new jobs exist and that companies offering them remain successful.”
  • Why are men gaining  jobs more quickly than women? An article this week in Slate wonders why men are picking up jobs faster than women. “During the job-killing economic contraction of 2007 to 2009, men accounted for about seven in 10 positions eliminated. It was deemed the “mancession.” But since the anemic recovery started in June 2009, men have picked up about 768,000 jobs and women have lost a further 218,000, according to a much-discussed Pew study that came out last week. It has turned into a “hecovery.” The overall trend of men losing more jobs then gaining them back faster is by this point old news … But the Pew report introduces a new wrinkle. Economists do not really know why employment has rebounded for men but not for women.”
  • What do you do if you can’t stand your co-workers? Workplace columnist Anita Bruzzese gives some tips for how to cope with this all-too-common on-the-job problem. My favorite tip: “Don’t hide behind e-mail … (because) communication is often the biggest source of problems at work, and e-mail doesn’t help … that only makes you less productive. To keep trust from eroding further, try to have face-to-face communications, which can help better resolve questions and avoid misinterpretations that arise from e-mail.”