This article will discuss the pros and cons of both flexi-time and remote working. It will proposes a HR decision support solution, supported by AI, for improving productivity.
I will define flexi-time as the ability of an employee to choose the specific hours in which they work given a certain number of fixed working hours in a day. For example, full flexi-time would be the ability for an employee to choose exactly which distributed 7.5 hours in any 24 hours period that they use for working. Partial flexi-time might be the ability for an employee to choose which 7.5 hours they use for working within a 12-hour window. There may be other restrictions imposed, such as blocking time into longer segments (e.g. 4 hours minimum).
I will define remote working as the ability of an employee to choose where they engage in working activity, while within an employment window. Full remote working is the ability of an employee to work wherever they like any time that they are engaged in working activity. Partial remote working is the ability of an employee to do this to some degree, while also being required to work at certain locations for some duration during the working day.
Flexi-time and remote working are exclusive practices. One does not require the other. In reality, however, they are often part of the same employment package. This article will seek to answer the question of how best to manage both practices for the benefit of any company.
Pros and Cons
The pros of flexi-time are as follows:
1. Self-aware employees can work at optimal times for output efficiency
2. Employees have a better work-life balance
3. Self-aware employees can take ownership of their work planning
4. It is popular with employees.
The cons of flexi-time are as follows:
1. Trust and monitoring difficulties
2. Syncing meetings and direct interaction phases can be burdensome.
The pros of remote working are as follows:
1. Employees can work in environments that suit them better
2. It can be more environmentally friendly
3. Less time is wasted in travelling
The cons of remote working are as follows:
1. Trust. It is human nature to want to see an employee at a desk
2. Loss of immediate human interaction can impact negatively on business and/or employee motivation.
3. Syncing up meetings where face to face discussion is beneficial can be burdensome.
4. Time zone syncing may be problematic.
The Individuality Issue
So far this discussion, and many other discussions on flexible working ignore an important factor: the differences between individual personality and role. Simply put: flexible working is not for everyone. This issue also needs to be addressed. Some people are suited to it, others are not, and some may become more suited to it over time.
So, what are the qualities that make a person suited or less suited to flexible working? We can locate these using the following matrix.
So, given the above, for example:
1. A developer, with lengthy service and a good self-starter, should be given high levels of flexi-time and remote working. Development output can be easily measured and the need for direct interaction, while not zero, is relatively low.
2. A sales operative who travels different areas will need remote working, but may or may not also need flexi-time.
3. A dev-ops person may need flexi-time, for night working etc… and may or may not also need to remote work.
4. An office admin team leader is not likely to need high levels of either flexi-time or remote working.
Team Cohesion and Bonding
In addition to the above, it should be acknowledged that individual output may change as a direct result of working remotely or flexibly over extended periods of time. The need for occasional team-bonding sessions, the mixing of different departments, cross-organisational activities, occasional isolation etc… are psychological elements that should be factored in to any potential solution.
A good solution should generate peak productivity through the degree of flexi-time and remote working privileges given to employees. Identifying a solution will require that we identify the problems to be solved. One way to achieve this is to map productivity against the common benefits of flexi-time and remote working.
Benefits and Productivity
The common benefits identified in the preceding comments, for both flexi-time and remote working, relate to productivity as follows:
1. Saving travel time -> Individuals more ready to work
2. Working at optimal times -> Individual produce more optimal work
3. Employees take ownership -> Individuals take more pride and responsibility in their work, producing better results.
4. Better work/life balance -> Happier healthier employees
5. Employees work in best environment for them -> Better work is produced
Other benefits, such as the environment and popularity are contingent and do not directly relate to productivity, but remain important.
The individuality problem means that we cannot optimize productivity with a ‘one size’ fits all solution. The issue is consequently a HR concern. It needs to be fitted at the employee level, not the company one.
Attempts to resolve the above by giving only a little flexi-time to all — say a couple of hours either way, morning and evening, merely fudge the issue and do not address it. In this case, many of the benefits of full flexibility are lost, and full productivity will not be achieved.
A HR Solution
A HR solution at the level of the individual employee will help in the following ways:
1. The degree of flexi-time and remote working allowed can be tailored to the specific role that the individual plays in the company. As we have seen, some roles lend themselves to increasing flexi-time and remote working, while others lend themselves to reducing these.
2. The degree of flexi-time and remote working afforded can be adjusted according to individual temperament. As we have seen, some individuals thrive better under these than others. Need for interaction can be factored into this.
3. The degree of flexi-time and remote working afforded can be adjusted according to the degree specific output can be measured. As we have seen, some output can be more easily measured than others.
4. The trust issue can be resolved by making increased flexi-time and remote working privileges a function of the time an employee has served, their annual reviews and promotions.
5. The balance of team bonding times verses isolation times can be addressed, by factoring these into the overall picture through HR activities etc…
5. That leaves syncing, for meetings etc… This is less a HR issue than a resource scheduling problem. Suffice to say that if meetings are arranged well enough in advance, and remote technology is used to assist where needed, this problem can be resolved relatively easily.
Automation and AI
So far, we have shown some common benefits and problems with flexi-time and remote working. We have then shown how the benefits can be mapped onto productivity improvements. We have also show how a HR approach can emphasize these improvements while mitigating common problems.
This gives us the foundations for a potential AI decision support system that can improve productivity by selecting and suggesting differential working times and geographical flexibility for a workforce.
A machine learning AI system works best when sorting through complex data on the basis of clearly defined matrices and distinct feedback responses. In this case, the complex data is represented by a team of employees and their individual sorting attributes, as detailed in the table above: need for interaction, length of service and so on. Different ranges of geographical and temporal flexibility can be assigned on this basis.
Feedback can be returned in terms of the usual HR KPIs for each employee’s productivity. Based on this feedback, the system can learn and adjust its recommendations. This will make it more precise in identifying solutions for current employees and more flexible in adjusting to new employee intake.
It is beyond the scope of this article to discuss the specific creation and implementation of the code needed for this, however it should be possible to do create relatively quickly by leveraging cloud services such as AWS SageMaker. My aim here has only been to show how the concepts of flexi-time and remote working can benefit a business, how a HR solution fits best, and how AI may be used to sort between HR metrics and KPIs to increase overall productivity.