Weekly Wrap: The Downside of Flex Work – Feeling Really Out of the Loop

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In all the many words that have been written about the Yahoo and Best Buy decisions to quit allowing out of the office flex work, one point seems to have gotten lost: there are a number of important things those work-from-home employee miss out on.

I’ve been working from home now for three years, and although I enjoy the short commute upstairs to my office, I really miss not having other people around to bounce things off.

That’s a big loss, because I function better in some ways with a team that’s physically around me.

Plus, it’s easy to feel distant and removed from your co-workers without the common bonds and shared experiences that flow from working together in an office environment. A lot gets lost when you don’t have that to bind you to the work and the rest of the company.

Remote workers sometimes feel REALLY remote

I first encountered this about 15 years ago — before the dawn of the flex work era — when I was executive editor for the largest newspaper in Hawaii. Although most of the editorial staff worked from downtown Honolulu, there were one-person news bureaus located on Kauai, Maui, and on the Big Island of Hawaii.

MERCER2As much as I tried to visit and keep in touch with the staffers in those bureaus, and tried to help make them feel a connection with the distant Honolulu newsroom, there was still something that just couldn’t be bridged.

My Kauai bureau chief made this clear to me one time when I was visiting him in Lihue.

He said something like, “You know, I really get tired of the endless emails sent to the newsroom group telling me of the latest party coming up, or the malasadas that somebody brought in to share, or how everyone’s gathering after work for a drink. That just reminds me of what I’m missing. It gets really old reading about things I can never be a part of.”

Wow. I had never thought of it like that. And as hard as I tried, I guess I didn’t really understand what those three guys working alone away from the main office were going through. Now, 15 plus years later, maybe I do.

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Getting the most out of remote workers

Cindy Krischer Goodman, the workplace columnist for The Miami Herald, recently wrote about this in a story titled Remote employees require care to feel like part of the teamShe had this great observation that resonated with me given my Hawaii experience:

Today, businesses want the talent they want – and are more willing to hire or retain someone to fill a job even if they live or move thousands of miles away. Yet even with a great number of employees working remotely, nobody wants to be that guy who doesn’t get the inside joke during a conference call.

When the success of a team depends on the people, and all the people are scattered, it’s the manager who must make sure relationships stay vital and productivity high. Getting the most out of remote workers takes a manager who knows how to motivate and communicate from a distance. “Virtual workers still need a personal connection,” says strategic business futurist Joyce Goia, president of The Herman Group. “They want camaraderie and to feel like they are part of a team.”

Yes, for all the talk about the perks that come with a flexible work arrangement, the fact is, it’s hard, if not impossible, for someone like that to really feel part of the team. And with that loss of teamwork comes a loss of camaraderie and the vital essence of what makes a highly functioning work group great.

I wish some of the over-the-top criticisms of Marissa Mayer had mentioned that.

And one more thing: the great HR consultants over at Mercer came up with this informational graphic (left) that simply is about The Facts on Flexible Work Arrangements. I found it pretty interesting; I am betting that you will, too.

Of course, there’s a lot more than the latest on the flex world debate in the news this week. Here are some 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 talent management. I do it so you don’t have to.

  • Forget about that cash bonus. Would someone working for you — someone that you wanted to reward — prefer a gift or a cash bonus? I’d opt for the cash (unless it was such a small amount that a Starbucks Card would make it feel less so) . This HBR blog post digs into the differences and debates the pros and cons of the two. But the key is this: “Many employees toiling away in stores, factories, and cubicles are desperate for a sense of meaning in their work lives. Even the smallest gesture of kindness that shows they’re part of an organization that actually cares can give them purpose — and that leads to motivation.”
  • Offices as complaint departments. OK, if you manage people you know this to be true:  some people you manage complain — a lot. The New York Times dug into this issue recently. They talked to a Clemson University professor and came to this conclusion: “Make sure to deliver your complaint to the person who can actually do something about it, Professor Kowalski says. Complaining to colleagues about your pay is unproductive: your boss needs to hear your case. ‘Complaining,’ she says, ‘has to be strategic, and it has to be done in moderation, in order to have positive outcomes.’ “
  • Open workspaces are alive and well – in Iowa. I thought that the open workspace craze had run its course, but according to the Des Moines Register, it’s still thriving in the American heartland. “Open office design is now the dominant style for white-collar office buildings ranging from the headquarters of the Steelcase Inc. office furniture manufacturer, in Grand Rapids, Mich., to the “Googleplex,” in Mountain View, Calif. The style is also sweeping through the Des Moines area, where some of the largest employers have spent more than $570 million on it since 2006. Wellmark Blue Cross and Blue Shield moved into its $194 million open office headquarters in downtown Des Moines in 2010. Wells Fargo Home Mortgage and Aviva USA have neighboring open office headquarters in West Des Moines.”

John Hollon is Editor-at-Large at ERE Media and was the founding Editor of TLNT.com. A longtime newspaper, magazine, and business journal editor, John has deep roots in the talent management space. He's the former Editor of Workforce Management magazine and workforce.com, served as Editor of RecruitingDaily, and was Vice President for Content at HR technology firm Checkster. An award-winning journalist, John has written extensively about HR, talent management, leadership, and smart business practices, including for the popular Fistful of Talent blog. Contact him at johnhollon@ere.net, connect with him on LinkedIn, or follow him on Twitter @johnhollon.

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3 Comments on “Weekly Wrap: The Downside of Flex Work – Feeling Really Out of the Loop

  1. Good article John. I agree with your analysis here, I had many of those same feelings during my five years of working from home. The loss of camaraderie for me personally was certainly a huge factor in my distaste of working remote. It seemed I was always
    lacking pertinent information because I missed out on side conversations before/after meetings or I was just simply not included in meetings all together. We had at the time 12 out of a department of 34 working from home and I remember well receiving messages regarding the get together after work, crazy hat day or treasure hunt day which left us out. I now work from our headquarters and find this atmosphere to be more satisfying.

  2. Excellent piece, John. Two very overlooked words leapt to mind when reading it: intangibles and diversity. You describe two situations in which for you remote didn’t work — and Gary added his “amen.” Flexible work should have diversity at its core. People say it’s not one-size-fits-all and then speak as if all should agree with their favorite form of flex. This is truly a case of different strokes for different folks.

    The intangible is to me the most important and most overlooked arena. Feeling remote is corrosive. Being left out matters. These issues can be addressed. But they are rarely captured in our metric-driven world of deliverables, goals, outputs, etc. I’m sure your island bureaus delivered the expected copy. But team spirit? Maybe not so much.

  3. There are decided advantages to working at a home office when you are self-employed and can claim each day as your own, set your schedule to respond to client needs, meet in person if feasible, on the phone or email, and still find time to organize a neighborhood block party and convene a family reunion, or spend time with children. You sacrifice financial security quite often but gain the rewards of autonomy and creativity, while frequently escaping office politics and subservience to unwise authority.

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