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This Is Not a Flexible Workplace


It’s a reasonable workplace. Flexible means that we will bend the rules. That’s not a good idea. If you have rules, they ought to be followed.

“Reasonable” means we have good rules. So why aren’t we “flexible?”

It’s time to be a little pedantic. The word “flexible” doesn’t really mean what people seem to think it means. Here’s the definition:

Flexible: bends but does not break.

Flexible Workplace
© Flickr User Lars Ploughmann

I’m not a flexible person. I don’t want to be nearing the point of breaking, but not quite there. I don’t want our company to teeter on the edge of collapse, but just barely step away.

Instead, I’m all about predictability. I’m about minimizing risks, or at least trying to calculate what they are up front.

“Being flexible” means twisting best practices and policies to do what they never intended to do. A flexible workplace sounds great, but it’s not what what we want at all. Instead: we want to work for companies and with people who are imminently reasonable.

Why Flexibility Is Bad For Business

If we describe any aspect of our business as “flexible”, what we’re saying is that we have defined parameters and expectations, but that they aren’t actually that important. A “flexible workplace” undermines the mature business process that we put in place because we figured out they worked well.

We tell customers that we have a clear and fair refund policy, but what happens when we decide to “be flexible” and throw it away?

We tell investors that we offer a precise set of products and services that have market validation, but then we decide to “be flexible” and undermine shareholder value.

We tell employees that there are protocols and best practices for executing work, communicating with colleagues, and coordinating their schedules. But then we decide to “be flexible” and provide special treatment or build resentment.

Flexibility—which means twisting and bending right up until the system shatters—is bad for business.

Flexibility is Not Adaptation, Improvement, or Variation

Just because I can’t stand flexibility doesn’t mean that I don’t want things to get better. Sometimes, you need to adapt a rigid process to circumstances. But that’s not “being flexible.” Instead, that’s realizing that the existing approach does not cover all situations. The follow up to any unplanned adaptation is review. If that situation is going to happen again, perhaps the process or the policy needs to cover it. Process improvement is not being flexible: it’s adapting to new circumstances by working to figure what would be best, and then updating the defined process accordingly.

Flexible Workplace
© Flickr User johndal

Likewise, I want to be clear that being inflexible does not mean being opposed to acceptable variation. No process at any organization is without variation. Whether you manufacture parts or write press releases, you are going to have some errors and some unique elements. Understanding that these things happen (and working to reduce them over time) is not being flexible. In fact, that’s the opposite of being flexible! It’s being rigid in your devotion to quality.

Flexibility is Not Freedom

Perhaps the most important misconception about the flexible workplace is the wrongheaded idea that flexibility equals freedom.

Yes, anybody technically can bend any rule for any reason. An employee might decide to blow a deadline because they know they can “get away with it.” A manager might decide to let people have a casual dress Friday because they are confident that the dress code policy won’t be enforced.

But these are not examples of true freedom. Instead, these are just people bending the rules instead of changing the rules. True freedom is about finding out which rules can be eliminated altogether.

Great Workplaces Aren’t Flexible: They’re Reasonable

I can’t stand the word “flexible.” We’re not interested in making rules and then bending them on occasion. We’d rather think of ourselves as reasonable. That means focusing less on rules and more on results.

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About the Blogger: Robby Slaughter is a productivity speaker and expert. He is a principal with a AccelaWork, an Indianapolis consulting firm.


Tue, February 3 2015 » Corporate Culture

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