02/14/2011 10:45 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Rethink Workplace Flexibility

With February 14-18 being National Telework Week, now's a great time to rethink your company's approach to workplace flexibility. The way we work is increasingly becoming more dispersed and mobile, with business spanning time zones and borders. It is estimated that the number of worldwide mobile workers will reach one billion by 2011, which includes nearly 75 percent of the U.S. workforce, according to David Clemons and Michael Kroth, authors of Managing The Mobile Workforce. At the same time, workers -- particularly younger generations joining the workforce -- expect a high degree of flexibility in how, when and where they work.

These drivers are creating a fundamental shift in the way we work, (we call it "workshifting" at Citrix). This is impacting every part of the economy, with enlightened leaders recognizing that there is a golden opportunity to improve productivity while reducing costs. A timely example is provided by the recent passage of the Telework Enhancement Act, which provides a new framework for federal agencies to support virtual workers, helping to accelerate change and expand telework opportunities for most federal workers. It is calculated that this shift in working practices could save taxpayers a staggering $15 billion a year, according to data by the Telework Research Network.

That's the good news. The bad news is that while many companies today allow workshifting for some employees on an ad-hoc basis, most don't have formal policies in place and aren't prepared to manage a truly flexible and mobile workforce. The rules for today's employees are changing; with virtual working, location is increasingly irrelevant. Location is out -- connection is in. If I am connected, I can work whenever, wherever, however.

There is a need for businesses of all sizes to have a strategy to address these new ways of working. There has to be a sense of urgency here; if you don't have a distributed work strategy for your organization today, you are already behind. If you haven't even thought about it, you may never catch up. Technology is not really the problem here: there are a variety of excellent tools available to facilitate virtual working. Rather, the biggest barrier to change is management mindset.

I'm proud to say that I'm a workshifter, and so are many people within my organization. We have actively encouraged our employees to support workshifting and National Telework week. This year our workshifting policy will enable us to grow our headcount while reducing or avoiding costs. For instance, by allowing just 10 percent of our workforce to workshift, we can avoid more than $2 million in facility-related costs -- an example of just one immediate benefit of this approach.

Based on my experience, here are some practical suggestions for ways to introduce more flexibility into the workplace that will create tangible benefits for both employers and employees.

  • Develop a formal program. You're in business to make money, so the goal is to create a high-performance organization while enabling employees to benefit from workshifting.
  • Think about which roles within the organization are suited to virtual working and develop criteria for eligibility, such as whether performance can be measured remotely and whether responsibilities depend on daily face-to-face interactions with peers, clients and/ or managers. Other criteria include if employees are able to work in a self-directed capacity and are comfortable collaborating with coworkers and management through different technologies.
  • Communicate how the program works. Be open within the organization about the program, how it works, who is eligible and why, and why certain roles may not be eligible (access to confidential files, equipment or customers). Ensure the workshifting employees recognize that this is a privilege and not a right and that if their results are inconsistent, workshifting privileges may be suspended or revoked. Whenever you discuss workshifting, remind all employees to first check with their direct supervisor, manager or Human Resources contact before initiating any workshifting schedules.
  • Agree on a schedule. Discuss what type of virtual schedule works best for the employee, but also keep in mind what works best for the company in terms of in-person attendance at regular key meetings. In addition to agreeing on a schedule, establish a daily routine with remote workers in which they can expect to be called upon to answer questions or join a web meeting to discuss the status of projects.
  • Set up the right workspace. Ensure employees are not only equipped with the necessary technologies they need to work at home or elsewhere, but also that they know how to use them before they start workshifting. Work with your company to ensure employees have the opportunity to be trained on how to use mobile equipment or web-based systems. This will go a long way in ensuring the efficiency of new remote workers.
  • Change the way you manage and become a better leader. Allowing more flexible working means fewer opportunities to walk around the office and check in with employees. As a result, think about adjusting the way you lead. Setting clear, outcome-based goals, defining what needs to be done by whom and rewarding performance becomes more critical to your ability to manage people successfully. Training managers is as central a part of a workshifting program as training individual employees.
  • Accessibility is everything. In addition to setting clear expectations in writing with remote workers, managers also need to make sure they are more accessible than ever. You might even want to designate virtual office hours when remote employees can feel free to ask questions, set up an impromptu brainstorm session or get clarification on assigned projects.

Freedom from the company office is liberating for employees and, with the right policies and tools in place, can drive performance and business innovation. Adopting more flexible work styles can also be key to hiring top talent as flexible work arrangements are becoming more important when choosing one job over another. This trend is likely to become more evident as the economy continues to improve.

I invite you to make workshifting a reality for your company. Not only will your employees be happier, your company will reap the benefits of a vibrant and contemporary workforce management policy.