When home is also office

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An IBM office in Bangalore. The company’s flexi work options are popular with its employees and is one of the reasons for IBM’s higher retention levels.
An IBM office in Bangalore. The company’s flexi work options are popular with its employees and is one of the reasons for IBM’s higher retention levels.

Anjali Prayag

IBM’s flexi work option for employees has bust three myths at one go: first, that one needs to work long and regular hours to be considered a ‘performer’; that flexi working shows ‘lesser commitment’ and could therefore jeopardise one’s career growth; thirdly, and perhaps the most interesting, that more women prefer to work from home than men.

The Flexi Work Option (FWO) experience at IBM India has shown that ‘flexi’ is not a gender-based choice. Says Pete Lorenzen Vice-President, ITD, Global Delivery India and Executive Sponsor for Work Life Flexibility, IBM, “There are as many men as women opting to work from home. IBM also believes that a flexible workforce will be better able to respond to customer needs and help them contribute their full energy and talent to work.” That’s the reason IBM has made ‘flexibility a business imperative,’ an initiative (Flexi Work Options) to helps employees gain control of their lives which, in turn, leads to superior performance.

IBM ensures that employees choosing FWO do not miss out on career development and promotion opportunities. In fact, IBM’s work/life programmes are consistently rated as one of the top reasons employees stay with the company. Globally, 42 per cent of IBMers work in a mobile environment (i.e. work from home, at a customer’s office or alternate location, or are ‘mobile’ and do not have dedicated office space).

The need to offer work from home options, realised almost 20 years ago in the US, is becoming clear in India now. “Two income families need flexibility at the workplace and so we started work from home, job sharing and flexible work hours,” says Lorenzen. Work from home and flexi working (where employees work partly from home and go to the office once or twice a week) are popular options in India, he said, adding that job sharing would be introduced here soon.

IBM in India also allows its employees to move to locations of their choice. This option is particularly popular among women who use the facility to shift along with their spouses. Employees can move to 20 locations in the country including Hyderabad, Pune, Chennai, New Delhi and Bangalore.

The company is also actively working on getting women who have dropped out of professional life for personal reasons, back into the workforce. Is working from home as easy as it sounds?

Lorenzen, who has worked from home on and off for about five years, lists some simple rules: First, you have to mentally separate yourself from the home environment. The second rule is to manage time well.

“You do get uninterrupted at home, but you should be able to walk away from personal problems as well,” he says.

Debasisha K. Padhi, Advisory Technical Service Professional at IBM, who has been working from home since June, says the time he saves on travelling (around three hours) is spent on studying for his MBA programme. “I come into office once a month and have not faced any problem so far.”

IBM has also developed a Workplace Flexibility Toolkit — a collection of useful tips for teleworkers that includes information on career management; setting work/life boundaries when working from home; and staying connected with the team when working remotely.

Working from home or a remote location does not impact teamwork either, says Lorenzen.

In fact, 78 per cent of IBM managers have teams with some remote workers.

The flexi working option has brought in two critical — though interrelated — benefits to the organisation: One, is higher retention levels and the second, is that it works as a great morale booster, which is the single biggest reason FWO has become a business imperative at IBM, according to Lorenzen.

(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated October 29, 2007)
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