Science & Technology

Flexibility Rules


When David Packard was an young engineer at General Electric, the company zealously guarded its tools and parts, afraid that employees would steal them. "Faced with this obvious display of distrust," wrote Packard in The HP Way, "employees set out to prove it justified, walking off with tools or parts whenever they could….The irony in all of this is that many of the tools and parts were being used by their GE 'owners' to work on either job-related projects or skill-enhancing hobbies."

Hewlett-Packard, by contrast, kept its storerooms and parts bins open. What its founders understood, and GE did not, is that for many knowledge workers there is no clear distinction between work and hobbies, on-the-job hours and off- the-job free time. And information technology makes boundaries even blurrier. Laptops travel from office to home; pagers and cellular phones summon us on the road; fax machines and e-mail move documents across time and space. As a manager of seven, I've now employees working from homes in Texas, New York, and Washington, D.C., instead of our office in Los Angeles. Two of them work half months rather than full time. IT advances have let them negotiate arrangements that would have been inconceivable 10 years ago.

As more and more flexible arrangements become possible or demanded they will become increasingly contentious. From the tax code to union contracts, zoning laws to overtime policies, our public and private rules have generally assumed a clear demarcation between home and work, the personal and the corporate.

These boundaries are not, however, facts of nature. We draw them ourselves, and not everyone draws them in the same way. That point is tellingly made by sociologist Christena Nippert-Eng in Home and Work. Mostly a case study of scientists, machinists, and personnel managers at a research institute she calls "the Lab," the book asks detailed questions about how employees draw the lines that help define their lives. Some examples: Do you keep separate business and personal calendars? Does your family ever visit you at work? Do your colleagues visit your home? Do you wear the same sort of clothes at home that you do at the office? Do you work flextime? Do you use commuting time to mentally switch between home and work?

Respecting the different ways in which people answer these questions can give managers valuable insights including insights into how best to use information technology. Someone accustomed to combining home and work commitments on an all-purpose pocket calendar, for instance, will find a shared computer calendar system at work more cumbersome than useful. On a positive note, many knowledge workers, including Nippert-Eng herself, use working at home for contemplative activities such as writing. They go to the office when they need the stimulation of colleagues. Information technology makes such flexible arrangements easier.

Unlike some trend spotters, Nippert-Eng, who teaches at the Illinois Institute of Technology, doesn't tout a no-boundary future. Drawing clear lines between home and work is too important to many people's productivity, and to their privacy. She hopes instead for "discretionary" workplaces that give employees the freedom to set their own boundaries.

In its pure form, she writes, "the discretionary workplace offers options in terms of dress, whether or not one must use personal or work money for workplace expenses, the ways one can decorate one's office or home, make phone calls, take lunch or vacation, use workplace tools and resources, bring one's family into one's work, bring one's work mates into one's home, etcetera. There are no mandates," she writes. Telecommuting is an option, not a requirement.

Not every workplace, of course, can or should offer such discretion. Employees may need to meet with each other, or meet the public, during regular hours. Or the work may require capital equipment that can't be taken home no backyard steel mills. Corporate culture and occupational tradition may have cherished mores about where lines are drawn. Ultimately, the discretion that counts most is the discretion to shop around.

The trick, then, is not to dictate a single standard for every person or organization but to realize that boundary drawing is an artificial and ongoing process. A diverse and dynamic marketplace can accommodate many different sets of boundaries. Our public policy hasn't done that, but technological advances and the options they provide may force it to change. Eventually, the IRS may even become reasonable about home offices. We can only hope.