Magazine

Learning & Earning

The rise of the be-your-own boss office

Today’s workers demand a big say in where they do their jobs. That can actually be good for employers.

Dan Sally is able to use his own judgment about when he works at home in Dedham.

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Dan Sally is able to use his own judgment about when he works at home in Dedham.

ONE MORNING last April, Dan Sally was tiptoeing around his Dedham home, trying not to wake his four children or his wife, who was struggling through a bad cold. It was only 4:15, long before sunrise, but Sally needed to get to his office particularly early to hop on an important call with customers in Europe. Just as he was slipping out the door, Sally heard his 3-year-old son whisper to him from the top of the stairs, “Please, don’t go.”

Plenty of working parents have faced similar heartbreaking moments when work has to come first. And plenty know what often comes next: a whispered apology, a quick exit, and overwhelming feelings of guilt. But that’s not what happened. Instead of heading into the office, Sally turned around, walked back inside, and tucked his son into bed. After the boy was asleep, he made his call, then spent the rest of the day working from home. No one in his office batted an eyelash.

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As a senior salesperson at HubSpot, a marketing and sales software company in Cambridge, Sally works from home two or three days a week. He has used HubSpot’s flextime policy — which it describes as “choosing where you work best” — to avoid mornings of brutal traffic or inclement weather while also attending more school plays and parent-teacher conferences than he ever did in previous jobs.

The result, Sally says, is less stress at work and home, despite regularly putting in 50-hour weeks. “There’s never been a point while at HubSpot where I had to choose between family and my job,” he says. “That not only means when I’m working I’m focused, but I also feel better about the work I’m doing.”

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Sally isn’t the only one. HubSpot, which went public last October and is now worth more than $1 billion, puts an emphasis on allowing its roughly 750 employees to make decisions on how they will be most productive. This sensibility is reflected in its vacation policy, which is pretty much three words long: “Use good judgment.” Employees don’t have to fill out paperwork when they take a day off, just as they don’t when they work nights or weekends. As a salesperson, Sally says, his job performance “is extremely easy to quantify.” He adds that “as long as my performance is at or above expectations and I give my manager advance notice, I have full freedom to plan my schedule.”

In today’s working world, the experience of Sally and his colleagues is at one extreme of the flexibility spectrum. At the other are the countless employees — from shop clerks to teachers to firefighters — who must be at their workplaces on a set schedule. But for a certain type of modern office worker, flexibility about where and when they do their work is more widespread than you might guess. And it’s only getting more common — because it has to. “If workers are not provided with modern benefits of flexibility and autonomy,” says Doug Schade, a recruiter at WinterWyman in Waltham, “top people may go to companies who are offering that.”

NOT LONG AGO, flexible working arrangements seemed to be undergoing a major reappraisal. In 2013, new Yahoo! chief executive Marissa Mayer made international headlines when she ended the struggling company’s popular work-from-home policy (she’d reportedly discovered that remote employees weren’t logging on to the company network as often as they should). Even before that, Bank of America began calling many employees back to their offices and enforcing stricter rules on how and where they spent their time. If corporate America were conducting a flextime experiment, it looked like a bust.

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For all the negative press, though, many forms of flexibility have been on the rise. By some accounts, as many as 30 million Americans now work from home at least once a week. According to a recent survey by the Families and Work Institute, 92 percent of employers allow some employees to decide when they take breaks, 81 percent allow them to change their starting and quitting times, and 67 percent allow at least occasional work from home. These figures were all higher in 2014 than they were in 2008. (It’s not all good news for workers: The ability to make flexible arrangements like job sharing and sabbaticals declined during that period.)

Among the workplaces most committed to flexibility are those, like HubSpot, that follow the principles of ROWE, an acronym for Results-Only Work Environment. The system, developed and marketed by the Minnesota-based consulting firm CultureRx, challenges the traditional notion that time plus physical presence in the office is the only formula to maximize productivity. It argues that businesses can really succeed by granting workers complete autonomy and asking of them complete accountability.

For the folks behind ROWE, most flexible working arrangements don’t go far enough. ROWE-certified offices must make a series of pledges, including not posting office hours, never having a “mandatory” meeting, and not tracking time off. They can’t even have a telework policy or handbook. Nobody asks managers for permission to go to an appointment or other personal activity — they just tell them.

“A lot of the ways companies approach flexibility is outdated,” says Jody Thompson, who co-created ROWE in 2003. As an example, she cites news from late last year that Facebook and Apple would start paying for female employees to freeze their eggs. The idea was to make it easier for women to rise up the career ladder now and make time for family later. While it’s true that a record number of women in the United States are delaying having kids, Thompson says the policy actually reinforces the message that women cannot be mothers and effective employees at the same time.

2/26/15- CAMBRIDGE - Dan Sally, a salesman at HubSpot, works from the office in Cambridge a few times a week. Sally can alsoa work at home a couple at home two to three days a week. (globe staff photo :Joanne Rathe section: magazine reporter: francis stores topic:03081 flextime )

Joanne Rathe/Globe Staff

Dan Sally at his desk at HubSpot in Cambridge.

The ROWE system was developed at Best Buy’s corporate headquarters beginning in 2003, and the electronics retailer quickly saw benefits. Employees were less stressed and exercised more, productivity increased, and there was less turnover. Yet after the company began to struggle, a new chief executive abandoned ROWE in 2013. “In the context of a business transformation, it makes sense to consider not just what the results are but how the work gets done,” a spokesman said at the time. “It’s ‘all hands on deck’ at Best Buy, and that means having employees in the office as much as possible to collaborate and connect on ways to improve our business.”

Other companies, however, have stuck with it. In 2008, the outlet division of Gap Inc. embraced pilot programs for a results-only workplace in its San Francisco corporate offices, then extended ROWE to employees in other divisions. Over time, the company measured a decrease in turnover as well as increases in areas such as worker satisfaction, engagement, and productivity. “We have had anecdotal evidence that employees in a ROWE environment actually work more hours than those in a non-ROWE environment,” says Eric Severson, a Gap human resources executive.

That’s part of the substantial business case for flexible working arrangements (lest you thought bosses were offering them out of the kindness of their hearts). A 2013 Stanford study found that employees working from home were 13 percent more productive than their office-bound colleagues, taking fewer breaks and succumbing to fewer distractions. At IBM, remote employees reported they could work 57 hours a week before throwing their work-life balance out of whack, whereas office employees reported that conflicts began to emerge at the 38-hour mark.

And there are still other benefits for employers. With more than 730 of its 3,600 US associates working from home full time, Blue Cross Blue Shield of Massachusetts has calculated that it saves $8.5 million a year in costs for administration and office space. (Add to that employee savings in commuting and food costs.) And because e-work is so built into the insurance company’s culture, it was easily able to serve its 2.8 million members even as Blue Cross offices had to shut down during February’s major snowstorms.

At many organizations, Blue Cross included, various forms of workplace flexibility are just part of a broader package of perks meant to keep good employees and attract great new ones. At Blue Cross, “the motive for e-working came from the need to recruit the best and the brightest,” says workforce mobility consultant Karen Kelly, who has been e-working for the last four of her 26 years with the company. Similarly, at Fidelity Investments, the focus is increasingly on attracting and retaining millennials.

HR departments ignore millennials at their peril: The group will make up 50 percent of the global workforce by 2020. And it’s not a generation that seems particularly content with the standards of the traditional workplace. Ninety percent of American millennials in one survey “strongly” or “somewhat” agreed that employers should provide flexible schedules; another survey showed that 95 percent cared about work-life balance.

“Millennials are really focused on mobility and want to work wherever and whenever,” says Jennifer Hanson, head of Fidelity’s benefits and wellness program. To help meet that need — for all its 41,000 employees worldwide, not just the youngest ones — the company rolled out GoWork Centers several years ago, which allow for shared work spaces for employees while they’re traveling. Many Fidelity offices have a “guru bar,” where tech support can help staffers with their computers, iPads, and smartphones (and give them a power cord if they forgot one). In addition to backup child- and elder-care programs, there are on-site health and wellness centers, healthy food in cafeterias, and a concierge service that was busy recently helping employees hire contractors to remove ice dams.

“We’re all about supporting employee needs based on where they are personally,” Hanson says. “We try to take pressure off people.”

FLEXIBLE WORKING ARRANGEMENTS, for all their benefits, are not without problems. Criticisms of ROWE workplaces, for example, largely cluster around the argument that one size never really fits all — flextime may work for employees in the Gap’s home office, but not for store clerks in malls across America. “The moment someone feels a colleague is getting favored or not pulling their weight,” says J.T. O’Donnell, CEO of Careerealism Media in Hampton, New Hampshire, “camaraderie starts to fall apart.” For a company truly to thrive, she says, every member of a team needs to understand and buy in to the rules.

Lotte Bailyn, professor emerita at the MIT Sloan School of Management, has also been critical of the ambiguous nature of some flextime arrangements . Rather than being a perk, the “unlimited” vacation policies of some employers  can just leave many employees confused. “People need predictability and structure, and the ambiguity and uncertainty of something like unlimited vacation will just lead to confusion and not to more needed time off,” she says in an e-mail. Whatever a company’s flexible policies, they must be implemented with structure and clear guidelines, she says.

Companies don’t have all the answers, but they’re working on them. Daniel Pink, author of Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us, says employers are slowly figuring out the mix between requiring employees to be at their office desks and allowing them to be completely autonomous. “There isn’t a situation that is perfect with every organization, but we have to get past the orthodoxy that the only way to get work done is to be physically present in a place called the office,” he says.

For Dan Sally at HubSpot, the flexibility has let him miss fewer school plays, exercise five times a week, and learn to speak Portuguese in his spare time. “Like many Americans, I spend more time at work than any other activity, but it doesn’t come at the expense of other things which give meaning to my life,” he says while working from his home during a February blizzard. “I can still be the father, husband, and person I want to be in addition to being a successful contributor at work . . . and I don’t plan on leaving.”

It turns out HubSpot management is pleased with how things are going, too. Total 2014 revenue was nearly $116 million, up 49 percent from the year before. “Just because an office is empty,” says Andrew Quinn, director of training and development, “doesn’t mean it’s not being productive.”

REPORT CARD

Among US employers, flexibility for full-time staff increased between 2008 and 2014:

> Occasional choice over where to work: rose from 50 percent to 67 percent

> Control over breaks: rose from 84 percent to 92 percent

> Can leave the office when important needs arise: rose from 73 percent to 82 percent

But US employers pulled back on flexibility for part-time work:

> Allow job sharing: fell from 29 percent to 18 percent

> Allow sabbaticals: fell from 38 percent to 28 percent

> Allow career break to handle a personal responsibility: fell from 64 percent to 52 percent

Source: 2014 National Study of Employers — Families and Work Institute

Related coverage:

- The danger of neglecting community colleges

- Open offices seem great — until you work in one

Paula Vasan is a writer in the New York City area. Send comments to magazine@globe.com.
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