THE recent decision by a global technology company to ban telecommuting has reopened an old debate: can jobs really be location free? Can employees really be trusted to be productive when they are away from the office? Can innovation take spark when employees are not face to face? Dozens of editorials have since appeared, criticising or defending the decision. The Washington Post called it a "painful irony" that a Silicon Valley tech company would insist on employees being physically present in office, while Forbes magazine applauded the CEO of the company for her bold decision to build a "collaborative workplace that can create truly inspiring products".
Every CEO makes decisions based on a variety of factors that are unique to his or her business, and it is not for others to comment on it. However, our response to the broader question of flexibility is important and has an impact on how we, as leaders, shape the future of the workplace itself.
As a woman leading a multi-billion dollar global business for P&G, I have no hesitation in saying that flexibility has been core to my success. In fact, if my company hadn't placed its trust in me and provided me with the flexibility that I needed at different stages of my life - be it when I had to work remotely out of my home in order to care for elderly parents or in later years, when I needed to spend more time with my child - I may have had to leave the workforce.
The fact is that businesses continue to get more complex and are ever more challenging. The one thing that companies can do to ensure future success is to continue to attract and retain the best talent. However, there is no one "type" that can become the template for best talent. A typical work group today may include an expectant mother; a dual-career couple with school-age children; a single under-30 Gen Y whose passion is to save the world; and a manager who is responsible for a geographical area spanning three time zones.
It is in the interest of the organisation to leverage and celebrate a diversity of skills, styles, passions, points of view and experiences because those are the things that lead to new ideas and creative breakthroughs. To drive disproportionate productivity and innovation, we need to recognise that every employee has unique needs, and it is up to us, as leaders, to create an organisational culture that allows everyone to perform at their peak.
And this brings me to an important point. Flexibility is really about embracing diversity and fostering inclusion. According to McKinsey's Women Matter report, 30 per cent of business leaders surveyed in Asia said that many or most women at mid-career or senior level who left their jobs voluntarily did so because of family commitments. In certain markets such as India, South Korea and Japan, the level is closer to 50 per cent. The double burden for women, particularly in Asia, exerts heavy influence on women's decisions about their working lives. It often leads to mindsets such as "I don't want to stand out" or "I'm comfortable where I am" for women who want work-life balance but fear that additional responsibilities will take them away from their family.
P&G has adopted a philosophy called Flex@Work, which is really just that - a philosophy. We believe that if the needs are unique, then the solutions too must be unique. So whether it is work from home, flexible timings, reduced work schedules or sabbaticals, we work with our employees based on their needs to help them achieve the work-life balance that allows them to perform at their peak.
Global consulting companies, which are known for their high-pressure high-performance work environment, also have well-established flexible programmes that allow employees to be in control of how they manage their time. Bain & Company, for example, has a Take Two programme that allows employees to take an extended two-month break on top of formal sabbaticals. McKinsey too enables employees to "ramp up" or "ramp down" on both side of parenthood leaves and provides a range of flexible work options.
For flexibility to be effective and not become a hindrance to productivity or innovation, a culture of trust and personal integrity is absolutely essential. In its absence, flexibility is open to abuse by employees and is a source of suspicion for employers. Therefore it is important to institute principles that encourage accountability. At P&G, we insist on "accessibility" as a measure of accountability. The rule is that wherever you are, you must be available and accessible to your work teams.
This typically means a reliance on technology. We support employees to set up a home office to ensure that they are able to operate on the same technology platforms at home as they do at the office.
Let's face it: Separation by distance is the new normal of a global workforce. For my business, collaboration often means cooperation between a team in Singapore, a team in Geneva and a team in Cincinnati. These teams will rarely be face-to-face in person, irrespective of whether they work from home or not. Individually, these teams bring a rich combination of local insights; and together, they weave a global perspective. Effectively leveraging technology - be it advanced video collaboration studios, Web meetings, instant chat systems or cloud offices - and designing flexibility into the DNA of a trust-based, inclusion-oriented organisation is the only way in which we can inspire higher productivity and breakthrough innovation in the workplace of the future.