During the dust-up over Yahoo ending work-from-home arrangements a few years ago, people on both sides had plenty of research to point to. Working face-to-face does often produce more innovative solutions. On the other hand, remote workers are generally more productive. So what’s an organization that needs innovation and productivity to do?
Fortunately, there’s a way to get both: Create core hours.
Core hours are times when everyone commits to being in the office. Then you log the rest of your hours wherever and whenever.
As a matter of fact, such programs are reasonably common. The U.S. Department of Labor, for instance, advertises its core-hours policy to job seekers.
FLEXIBILITY, PLUS OFFICE ATMOSPHERE
“If a company operates between both worlds, being partially in-office and partially virtual, core hours can be a great way of allowing people the flexibility to work from home, while also maintaining the in-office magic,” Sara Sutton Fell, CEO of FlexJobs, a job service that specializes in flexible and telecommuting positions, tells me. “The key is communication about the hours, the expectations, and the goals. No matter what flexible work program a company devises, there needs to be structure behind it for it to succeed.”
AVOIDING (SOME) DISTRACTIONS
While limiting core hours goes against the typical mindset (where the default is in-the-office unless otherwise negotiated), “Managers need to remember that the ultimate goal of having workers be remote or work flexible schedules is to help them be as productive as possible,” says Sutton Fell. “Setting too many core hours each day may work against that goal.”
Office environments sometimes spur innovation as people bump into each other serendipitously, but they can also be incredibly distracting. A FlexJobs survey of 1,500 people found that many would avoid the office during normal business hours if they had important work to do. More than half (54%) said their home, not the office, was their location of choice to get important things done, and 18% said they’d choose the office, but only outside standard hours. Unless you want your employees doing all work that requires serious concentration at 5 a.m., 9 p.m., or on weekends (a recipe for burnout ), core hours shouldn’t comprise the bulk of a 40-hour workweek.
The point of core hours is not to ensure that people are around and still doing their jobs.
Finally, recognize that the point of core hours is not to ensure that people are around and still doing their jobs. It’s to get the benefits of both collaboration and solo time. So “don’t set core hours to be arbitrary,” Sutton Fell advises. “Rather, make sure that you’re setting meetings or focusing on projects that can benefit from being collaborated on during these times.” Schedule the brainstorming sessions, the coaching and feedback sessions, and yes, lunch. People work better with those they trust and like, so setting core hours from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. gives your team a built-in chance to socialize and get to know each other better.
Indeed, if you’re designating non-core hours for buckle-down-and-focus time, you can actually embrace the sort of chitchat that gets a bad rep for being unproductive. “In the Monday morning meeting, I make it a point not to discuss work,” says Burke. Instead, “All of us get a chance to talk about our weekends and families and movies and our lives in general.”
It seems to be working. Burke adds, “I have never experienced the level of trust and harmony we have as a team.”
Many of the habits you develop that influence your work productivity are shaped by your education. Unfortunately, for most of us, education was an individual sport, while our professional life is a team sport. As a result, we have to learn to work with others more effectively. (Just ask anyone who’s gotten stuck doing the lion’s share of a group presentation.)
One of the biggest drawbacks in group work is that often members act as if everyone working on a project is the same. This is particularly true in workplaces that see themselves as friendly, because people don’t want to order their colleagues around or give people jobs that may feel like they have lower status.
But any successful team needs people to take on roles. Not everyone in the band can be the lead guitar player (and as a sax player myself, I can assure you that playing a more supportive role in the horn section is a blast). That means that you need to be aware of some of the key roles that people have to take on and then to make sure those roles are filled with people who can do them well.
THE FIVE ROLES ON ANY TEAM
One key role is the decider. One person needs to have responsibility for being the final judge for key questions that arise. The decider might opt to let the group vote on certain things or to have discussions with team members to reach a consensus. But the group has to have someone who is ultimately given authority to make a decision that the rest of the team will accept.
A second key role is the editor. When groups present their work to others, there is often a report that goes out with it. While several different people may contribute sections to the report, it ultimately needs to read as though it has one voice. One person needs to take the lead on weaving the report together coherently so that it does not feel like it was patched together haphazardly.
Groups also need a scribe. Groups coordinate their activity in meetings. Unfortunately, in many meetings, everyone is engaged in discussion, and nobody records the discussion or catalogs the decisions that were made. The group scribe needs to keep good minutes for every meeting. If someone volunteers to take an assignment, they should be reminded about it later. If a key decision is made, it needs to be noted. The scribe should then post the results of the meeting somewhere where it can be accessed by everyone else.
Good teams also have a scheduler. There are two elements to scheduling—one is obvious and one less so. The obvious aspect of scheduling is that there needs to be a clear list of tasks that have to be performed, and one person needs to be responsible for making sure that at least one person on the team is addressing each of these tasks.
The less obvious aspect of scheduling is that people differ in their resting level of motivational energy, which psychologists call arousal. High-energy people tend to get things done early, because they channel that energy to whatever they have on their to-do list. Low-energy people often need external pressure such as a deadline to make sure they complete the things they start.
The problem is that there is an ideal level of energy for completing work. Too little energy, and it’s hard to get started on a task and to sustain interest in it. Too much energy, and people descend into panic and don’t work effectively. This U-shaped relationship between energy and performance was discovered in the early 20th century and is called the Yerkes Dodson curve.
One of the hardest jobs a scheduler has is to try to keep everyone working at the sweet spot of this curve. That means that low-energy people need to be given artificial deadlines to complete tasks in a timely fashion, while high-energy people need to be protected from having to do work too close to a deadline when they might become too energized.
Finally, every group also needs a presenter. This person is the one who shares the work of the group in public settings—whether those are meetings, external presentations, or conferences. The presenter needs to be someone with good public speaking skills who is able to internalize the work of the group and to talk about it concisely.
An important side note: It’s valuable to have a presenter who is not a narcissist. When narcissists serve as presenters, they often hog the limelight and don’t ensure that all the members of the team get credit for their contributions. It saps morale when people work hard and then see other people get rewarded for what they accomplished. Presenters need to find ways to highlight the influence that key team members had on the project and to make sure those individuals get recognized.
HOW TO PICK ROLES
Though it’s tempting to assign these roles once and then to have people adopt the same role for every project, there are several reasons to avoid this. For one, people need to get experience with different roles, so that they can learn new skills. For another, some roles are more visible than others, and those visible roles lead people to get more credit than they deserve for the success of a project—even when visible people do a good job of spreading accolades. Thus, while each project needs people to take on clearly defined roles, those roles should not define the way someone works every time a group is convened.