The flexibility trap: Jody Thompson tackles the telecommuting controversy in her recent webinar

webinarsJody Thompson has a message: managing sucks.

At least, managing people sucks, which is what most managers end up doing when they should be managing work. If you’re not sure what the difference is, you’re not alone. “Most managers don’t even realize they’re managing the wrong thing,” Thompson said during her recent webinar for Achievers.

According to Thompson’s new book, Why Managing Sucks and How to Fix It, managing work focuses solely on results, whereas people means places an undue focus on where and when employees do their jobs.

Micromanaging employees’ time is what Thompson calls “the flexibility trap.” “Managers always tell me, ‘Oh, I’m already flexible, I let employees work remotely on Fridays,’ for example. That’s not enough. You’re still telling your employees—who are all adults, presumably—how they’re allowed to spend their time. Why are you doing that? ‘Flexible schedule’ is an oxymoron,” she says.

It’s not personal; it’s business

It’s no coincidence that 90% of employees in the organizations included in the Great Place to Work Rankings: Best Small & Medium Workplaces report say their managers trust them without dictating their schedules. It makes sense—happy, loyal customers are a result of happy, loyal employees, and employees are happiest when they’re treated with trust and respect. In the airline industry, virtually every company flies the same planes along the same routes for roughly the same price; the only difference is the service. And yet customers are intensely loyal to their favorite airlines. Happy employees make the difference.

Of course, there are certain jobs where showing up to work at a specific time and place—such as flight attendants—is extremely important. “I’m not suggesting that no one ever come to the office again,” Thompson stresses. “But it’s important that managers focus on the best approach to achieve results, rather than assuming all employees should work ‘office hours’ by default.” Service and manufacturing jobs often require in-person work performed on strict schedules, and that’s OK. But maybe your developers are most productive at 2 a.m. Maybe your writers are least productive at 9 a.m. Does it really matter where they do their work, as long as they do it well?

The workplace can be better

Too many companies make surface-level improvements like ping pong tables and pet-friendly offices and pat themselves on the back for being revolutionary. These improvements certainly contribute to improved morale and give a boost to company culture, but an employee who would work best in the evenings after he puts his kid to bed won’t be any more productive with a Pomeranian under his desk.

Managers have a number of understandable fears about giving up control over employee schedules. Among them, most worry that their teams won’t be accessible when the manager wants to collaborate with them. But Thompson points out that the goal is not to force employees to work from home, or to give up face-to-face meeting altogether. If the work will be best accomplished by collaborating in-office, then that’s how it should be done.

“When managers find themselves worrying about an employee’s lack of face-time, it’s often because of dissatisfaction with their work,” Thompson says. “Moving them from home to the office probably won’t improve the quality of their work—you probably have the wrong person.”


What is your greatest challenge managing people?