Why not offer more workplace freedom?

Why not offer more workplace freedom?

I tend to like to consider new business-management ideas since that’s how we all learn to improve and beat the competition in this fast changing world.

Beyond our shores, new ways of organising the workplace are being tried and if they become mainstream, they will radically change the traditional workplace, not to mention the employer-employee relationship.

I am referring to ideas such as four-day working weeks, workplace democracy (i.e. decisions taken by the many rather than just the few), unlimited vacation leave, core hours versus non-core hours (the hours you actually need to be in the office), open seats on boards, employee ownership structures and tours of duty (which I have already written about in the ToM on August 1, 2013); the list goes on.

The main thrust of the these ideas for organising work and people is to recognise that employees today seek more than just a job or even a career.

By this I mean that talented people (the sort we all want to attract to our companies) are primarily attracted to places of work that offer them a good measure of mutual respect and workplace freedom. We have for too long imposed a one-size-fits-all approach when today’s high-performers have elevated expectations.

To my mind, the formula of building a great company is rather simple: a business needs to attract and retain the best talent. The best talent is attracted to places of work where they feel they are trusted, appreciated and free to work as they prefer, so in return the company can get the best out of them.

I know it sounds a little radical (or left field) but it really depends from what angle you look at it. Do you know, for instance, that the successful department store chain John Lewis is actually a partnership owned by a trust on behalf of those who work there?

Do you realise that some companies have open seats on their board (e.g. www.nixonm- cinnes.co.uk)? There are also companies that do not keep track of the number of hours their employees work or even take off (e.g. www.ryan.com).

The point is that HR practices are fast changing and what may sound radical or experimental today (especially in conservative Malta) will become mainstream tomorrow. Now, as a business leader or owner, you have two choices: you can either be ahead of the trend or you can watch your competitors do it before you.

Personally, I don’t think that workplace freedom is for all companies but I see a huge opportunity. I can’t, for instance, see manufacturing companies successfully giving employees unlimited vacation leave. Yet I do think that there are some interesting ideas which local businesses can tweak to suit their own unique position.

For example, why does a service-based business have to insist on its employees coming to work all at exactly the same time? Why can’t that sort of a company agree with its employees what the core hours are (meaning everyone has to be at work during a particular time e.g. 10am-3pm Monday-Thursday) but leave the rest – the non-core hours of working – up to the employees? Yes, I am suggesting that we trust them to work when and how they please during non-core hours.

If I were an employer, I’d be more fixated on whether or not my strategy is being implemented appropriately and delivering the results intended rather than worry about the number of non-core hours each and every employee is giving me.

Obviously, a change of culture at the workplace by both employer and employee is a pre-condition for any of these innovative ideas to work but there is value in investigating if some of these ideas – inspired by workplace freedom – could be applied to your own business and if employment legislation catered for these sui generis (in a class of their own) arrangements!

Ultimately, I see these innovative HR practices as magnets to attract and retain the best talent at management level. I think if one company offers a variant of workplace freedom and its direct competitor doesn’t, the former stands a much better chance of attracting the best talent and this can only mean (to my mind at least) competitive advantage.

To quote Mary Kay Ash, an American entrepreneur: “A company is only as good as the people it keeps.”


Kevin-James Fenech is a director consultant at Fenci Consulting Ltd.

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