Resilience was on display in New York City this past week. Subways and commuter trains ground to halt, leaving people with few transportation options throughout the region. Many employees made it to work anyway. A maintenance employee at the New School, where I lecture part-time, amazingly walked from his home in Queens to the West Village campus to help get facilities back online for students.
While stories like this demonstrate impressive dedication on the behalf of those who trudged over city bridges or braved the crowds to catch the few operational buses and subways to get to their workplaces, the situation raises broader questions about how companies and employees adapt (or don’t) to get jobs done today.
As a proponent of “slow work,” a concept that places emphasis not on speed of one’s work but on efficiency, flexibility, and quality, I was looking for a “teachable moment” from the post-Sandy scene. I recognize that many workplaces rely on physical presence in order to accomplish tasks. Retail and food services depend on employees to be available in person to deliver value. Likewise, first responders, health care workers, and public employees must physically — and in many cases bravely — go to wherever their services are needed.
But for those of us who might be categorized as “knowledge workers,” it is often not necessary to be physically present at any specific workplace. Considering how compromised the transit systems and urban infrastructure have been in the metropolitan area recently, I have to wonder whether we could have avoided some of the mess if organizations and employers had adopted flexible work practices that give employees more control around how, where, and when they do their work. If widespread flexible work structures were in place, fewer employees would have felt the need to get to work. By leaving the region’s roads, buses, and trains mostly to the workers who truly needed them, it’s arguable that the recovery efforts in our community would have been simplified. It’s also arguable that people would have been able to get more work done, considering all the time they wouldn’t have spent commuting.
Workplace flexibility and the “slow work” concept go hand in hand. Companies that give employees the autonomy to work in ways that suit their needs are rewarded by workers who add value to the business. They get the job done well, not merely done quickly. Slowing down and changing work routines can give us fresh perspectives that benefit our thinking and our output. For some time, I have been urging workers to consider “breaking out” of the office and utilizing coworking communities, wi-fi equipped public parks, and other organizations that host guest workers.
Beyond boosting creativity and refreshing workers’ energy, flexible work environments foster an atmosphere in which it’s assumed work can be accomplished at just about any time, almost anywhere. The events of the past week underscore the benefits of this way of working.
Research suggests that resilience in the workplace is something that can be proactively managed. Smart leaders recognize that adversity and disruptions are a routine part of everyday operations, and plan accordingly. The most highly reliable teams and organizations – those for whom failure can lead to devastating consequences (think hospital ER teams or fire departments) – commit to resilience and place enormous emphasis on operations and procedures.
For those of us in careers for which disruptions and failure lead to less dire results, I argue that flexible work practices are another way to build resilience in organizations. The slack given to employees enables them to adapt to disruptions and adverse conditions. Over the course of the past week, I was able to continue with business as usual because I had my laptop, VPN connection, multiple mobile phones, and the flexibility to focus on results rather than “face time” or the need to travel back and forth to any specific workplace. These tools enable me to work from anywhere. Because New York and many other cities are home to many coworking communities and other settings where I could work, I could use this extended network of resources in spots closer to home rather than relying on my office for the same amenities. Dropping into a coworking community for a day would provide me with meeting room space if I needed it for conference calls or even video conferencing for virtual collaboration.
Organizations cannot effectively embrace flexible work practices overnight, however. To succeed, it’s necessary for groups such as IT and HR to provide employees with tools, resources, and guidelines for working effectively. Success in this approach also requires a focus on results, not hours worked.
As the name indicates, organizations that operate as results-only work environments (ROWE) place great emphasis on the output that employees produce. As long as people get their work done when expected, ROWE organizations remain hands-off and give employees maximum flexibility and resources to accomplish their tasks. One study on organizations that adopt ROWE finds that when employees are given more flexibility in their work routines, it improves workers’ overall well-being, which can help keep employer health care costs while also boosting organizational productivity.
The streets of New York City would have been much less hectic last week if more organizations embraced flexible work practices. And just imagine how much more productive people could have been if they didn’t have to endure unnecessary commutes under less-than-ideal circumstances.
The city and the region will gradually return to normal, and work life will go on. But we owe it to our colleagues, our community, and ourselves if we approach work in ways that maximize efficiency. Let’s use the events associated with Hurricane Sandy to reprioritize our lives and the ways we work.
Peter Bacevice is a New York City-based workplace strategist and part-time lecturer at Parsons the New School for Design.