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Startups, Flexible working hours and ways to ensure that employees don't take advantage

Saurabh Deshpande
22nd Jan 2013
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Of late, flexible working has become a buzzword for corporate India.  From IBM to McDonalds, large and established companies promote flexible working arrangements as an integral part of their employee value proposition. Flexibility is not something new to startups. While the biggies are often found bragging about a new flexible working hours or telecommuting policy, it is startups that are the true champions of flexibility. However, many entrepreneurs that I have met have complained about their struggle to balance productivity with flexibility. Some common complaints include:

-         How do I know that my employees are genuinely putting in their best when working from home? When they are in office, I can at least see what they are doing.

-         As an entrepreneur, I want to see the value in every rupee that I spend. It pains me every time I see employees wasting their time, chatting or loitering around.

-         XYZ never has any fixed time for coming to office. I know that he always gets the job done but I’m scared about what kind of example this sets for the others in the team.

It is a well established fact that flexible work conditions spur creativity & innovation, and actually enhance productivity. It is not for no reason that the biggies have made flexibility their buzzword. That said one cannot fault the entrepreneur who fears shirking among his team. The challenges would certainly differ based on the stage of the startup but here are 5 general tips for ensuring that entrepreneurs can keep flexing without letting it hurt:

Understand your employment deal: Speak to any startup employee about what they value most about their jobs and I am sure that flexibility will rank among the top 3. For the entrepreneur, it is critical to understand this. It is highly unlikely that you are among the top paymasters or matching the benefits and perquisites that the biggies offer. As such, flexibility is one of the most valuable things that you can offer your employees. Any thoughts around taking the flexibility away should be treated as absolute sacrilege! That said, it is also important to ascertain the specific needs and preferences of different employee segments. Some may actually thrive in company and need an office to go to, but like to pick up the TT racquet or carom striker multiple times in the day. There are those who may like to come to office only twice a week but can churn out great productivity when working from home.

Institute role models: Unless you are really unlucky or just don’t know how to hire, you will always have at least one of those dependable employees who is always there for you. They may not always be your stars but their passion and commitment itself makes their impact so much more. Make these employees the role models. When other employees see the commitment with which they work, your recognition of the role models will reinforce these values. Especially for younger employees, these role models can make excellent buddies or mentors and help inculcate discipline without setting any formal rules.

Define accountability: One mistake that entrepreneurs often tend to make is that they communicate overall expectations to the team but fail to set specific accountability for each task. In a larger organization, you have supervisors who do this – setting clear responsibilities for each specific deliverable, providing guidance and tracking completion. In an early stage startup, there is a need to ensure that each employee clearly understands what is expected from them. A good idea is to have a weekly team meeting where employees talk about what they accomplished in the last week and what they will be doing the next week. Not only is this a great way to build accountability, it also ensures that everyone in the team knows what is going on in the company.

Create ownership: It is important for employees to understand that while flexibility is a given, it is their responsibility to ensure that their work gets done. This is often easier said than done. Many entrepreneurs expect their teams to be self-starters like themselves and expect that they will work on auto-pilot mode. However, it takes more than just a salary and bonus (if you can even afford it) to create ownership. You will often find that even equity often fails to motivate employees and create ownership. This is one area where startups have a huge advantage over the biggies. As a startup, you can build an overall organization vision and mission that surpasses the individual. You need to connect to the innate passion and desire to build something that each of us have. It is when employees feel involved and vested in your company’s success that your startup will stop being yet another job and become a part of employees’ lives. Use equity to reinforce the ownership message but don’t trivialize it by doing the math on it!

Encourage clarifications: Many times, employees end up postponing tasks which they are not sure of how they are to be done. Instead, they will spend their time on less critical tasks or even worse, wasting time in the guise of flexible working. Let’s face it, many of us hate to admit that we are unsure of how to get something done and allergy to ambiguity is more common than you think! Employees may even tend to get defensive when questioned about posting facebook updates while a particular deliverable is long pending. Remember that the real enemy may not be the non work-related sites that you allow employees to browse, but the unclear nature of the tasks assigned to them. Understand that as an entrepreneur, you are also the chief mentor. Make sure that you take time out to guide your team. You must encourage clarifications and always watch out for that ‘zapped’ look!

By understanding the employment deal, entrepreneurs can make the mindset transition from worrying about shirking to leveraging flexibility. Role models will drive a culture of commitment. Creating accountability will ensure that employees know what has to be done and who has to do it. Combined with a sense of ownership and more clarity on how to get the job done, you will find that flexibility will not only create happier employees but inspire innovation and drive productivity. If you are still not convinced, ask yourself who you would rather have in your team – the always punctual guy who will seldom stretch or the occasional late-comer who will always be willing (and happily so) to burn the midnight oil...

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