Time to be flexible

Is the traditional office environment suited for productive and efficient work?


Employees who work from home can be more productive. Photo: iStockphoto
Employees who work from home can be more productive. Photo: iStockphoto

You are working to a tight deadline. The client wants the presentation by the end of the day. Meanwhile, your colleague won’t stop describing the antics of her three-year-old niece.

To top it off, an accounts department official is making numerous calls, asking inane details about your annual investments.

The traditional office environment no longer seems to be suited for productive and efficient work.

In fact, the 2014 “State of Workplace Productivity Report” by California, US, based talent management firm Cornerstone OnDemand showed that 65% of workers thought that a flexible and remote work schedule would increase their productivity. And, as open offices become commonplace, 43% of workers said they were getting less done because of the constant interruptions from co-workers.

Working in your PJs

When Chinese travel website Ctrip gave its call centre staff the opportunity to work from home for nine months a few years ago, it found that the at-home workers were not only happier and less likely to quit, but that they were also more productive compared to the control group that remained in the office.

According to the Remote Collaborative Worker Survey by US cloud solutions provider ConnectSolutions, of the total number of employees who work remotely at least a few times every month, more than three-quarters report greater productivity while working off site. The survey also found that some 30% of employees complete more work in less time, and 24% get more done in the same time.

“The results we saw at Ctrip blew me away. Ctrip was thinking that it could save money on space and furniture if people worked from home and that the savings would outweigh the productivity hit it would take when employees left the discipline of the office environment. Instead, we found that people working from home completed 13.5% more calls than the staff in the office did—meaning that Ctrip got almost an extra workday a week out of them,” wrote Nicholas Bloom, a professor of economics at Stanford University and co-director of the Productivity, Innovation and Entrepreneurship programme at the US’ National Bureau of Economic Research, in the January-February 2014 issue of Harvard Business Review. He added that one-third of the productivity increase was due to a quieter environment, which makes it easier to process calls.

Individuals who have the option of working during their most productive times of the day—early mornings, late nights or somewhere in between—also tend to show higher efficiency in work.

“Certain personality types work better at certain times of the day. For instance, a night owl would be more productive working late hours than if he was restricted to the conventional 9-5 timing,” says Niharika Banerjea, associate professor of sociology at the School of Liberal Studies in Ambedkar University, Delhi. “Moreover, a person working from home saves on the commute time, thereby practically gaining more hours to do office work,” she adds.

9-5 is old school

San Francisco, US, based design firm Gensler’s 2013 US Workplace Survey found that employees working in offices that afforded them the choice of when and where to work were better performers and more effective.

Old school managers, however, can take heart. Workplaces that allow flexible hours aren’t a wasteland of abandoned cubicles. “Increasing choice doesn’t mean everyone is working from home—respondents with choice still spend the vast majority (70%) of their time in office settings,” stated the survey.

It’s more than just the offer of working from home. The fact that there is an option to work elsewhere, like a quiet coffee shop should one feel distracted in office, or the ability to work from home should a personal circumstance necessitate it, seems to be the real reason behind a more productive team.

“Personal productivity shoots up when one works from home or has flexible working hours, for the usual office desk distractions, like colleagues coming over to discuss something, is absent. Having said that, it is not feasible to eliminate the office set-up entirely as client meetings and team collaborations are essential for any successful project,” says S.V. Nathan, senior director and chief talent officer at consultancy firm Deloitte India, which practises flexible hours.

Improving employee productivity also has a direct impact on a company’s growth. A 2006 study by the US’ Cornell University’s School of Industrial and Labour Relations of 320 small businesses showed that companies that grant employees choice in terms of work grew at four times the rate and had one-third the turnover of control-oriented firms.

“Flexibility increases the happiness quotient of employees, and happy people produce happy results,” says Nathan.

CUT OUT THE NOISE

You can mimic the experience of working remotely by reducing workplace interruptions

u Shut the door

Don’t let a misguided “open-door policy” prevent you from getting your work done. Doors were made for a reason. If your workplace is a cubicle without actual doors, position yourself with your back to the entrance. That will help you focus on work, without getting distracted.

u Go to your fortress of solitude

It may be the unused conference room away from your desk or the coffee shop right across the street from your office. Find that quiet spot and get on with the report.

u Signal your isolation

Maybe your co-workers will not take kindly if you put a “do not disturb” sign on your desk. However, there are other ways to signal that you are occupied. Put on headphones or create visual barriers, such as plants or a lamp, that make it harder for people to glance over and make eye contact.

u Take advantage of quiet times

One of the best ways to avoid interruptions is to do work when less people are around. Think about the times when your office is deserted. Does everyone arrive at 9am and leave at 5pm? Consider coming in an hour early or staying late now and then.

u Play that music

Music is a great way to isolate yourself from distractions. Also, the mere practice of wearing headphones will often prevent others from disturbing you.

u Put on blinders

If you need to complete a task on time, put on your productivity blinders. Download the Focus Booster app and start the timer. Tell yourself and co-workers who stop by your desk that you need to finish the task before the timer goes off.

u Turn off the beeps

It is not just co-workers who affect our concentration. The steady stream of mails, texts and social media notifications that keep popping up on our mobiles and desktops are equally at fault. When you have a deadline to meet, close your mail and put your phone on silent to avoid getting thrown off track.

Joy Ghose is the co-founder of Successiswhat.com, a success coaching firm.

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