Increase Workplace Flexibility and Boost Performance

The potential benefits of workplace variability are numerous — increased morale, motivation, and the ability to attract and retain talent — yet many managers don’t know where to start. Others are afraid that performance could suffer or something important could fall through the cracks.

Even the most employee-oriented managers have concerns about having employees work outside of normal work hours or at places other than the office. However, by taking a job design approach to workplace flexibility, managers can get the benefits of offering more flexibility while minimizing the downside. Here’s what you need to know:

Job Diagnosis

Not all jobs are conducive to time or place flexibility. However, most have certain duties that are amenable to being done at alternate times and places other than the office. If you look at the jobs you supervise and break them into their component parts, it is likely you’ll find that some tasks, maybe even up to a third of an entire job, lend themselves to time and place flexibility.

A marketing research specialist, for example, needs to collaborate with colleagues and clients. However, she also has tasks that are best done alone and undistracted. Someone in this job may be a good candidate for part-time telecommuting, perhaps one or two days from home. In this way, the specialist has uninterrupted time for deep study and analysis, without the distractions of the office (and saving time and money on a commute), while also being present enough of the workweek for collaboration, conversations and creativity.

Flexibility does not have to be all or nothing. In fact, it’s usually better when it’s not.

Person Diagnosis

Just like all jobs are not equally conducive to flexibility, some employees are better candidates for flexibility than others. If you have a high-performing employee who has proven he can self-manage well, you probably can entrust him with more flexibility. If you have a more unproven employee, or one whom you feel needs more structure and hands-on guidance, I’d talk to them about what they need to prove to you before they earn a more flexible arrangement.

In fact, I often advocate that workplace flexibility arrangements start on a part-time basis for an initial trial period. By doing so, you can better gauge how an employee either rises to the occasion or struggles with too much autonomy, and adjust accordingly.

Job Redesign

In her groundbreaking research, Harvard economist Claudia Goldin found that careers in which work is substitutable tend to have more flexibility and gender equity. That is, when the completion of work is not fully dependent on one individual employee, but rather when employees can coordinate actions to the point that many can competently satisfy client needs, employees are freer to work more flexibly.

Goldin noted that scientific, medical and technical fields tend to have substitutable work environments, while law, business and finance tend not to. There are obvious limits to redesigning work to create more substitutability, but many workplaces, maybe even yours, could benefit by doing so. You can increase substitutability in three ways:

Increased Teamwork. For example, you can give the responsibility for projects or for client accounts to a small team, rather than a single individual. When a team has sufficient interaction and overlapping duties, they can be well coordinated even if some team members occasionally work alternate schedules or partially from home. In fact, this is why most flextime arrangements mandate “core hours” for all employees. Further, a team-based approach also means that work can be completed and emergencies can be addressed without every member being present or on-call 24/7. This enables employees to put down the smartphone while at home, on weekends or on vacation, knowing that teammates can fill in seamlessly, reducing the negative effects of chronic overwork.

Mentoring and Development. One can generate similar benefits by pairing senior and junior employees on projects or client accounts. The junior staffer gains experience and exposure by working with someone more expert; the senior staffer can delegate tasks, freeing up time; the organization develops talent. This arrangement also means that, at times, the protégé can step in if needed, reducing the need for the mentor to be constantly present or on-call.

Coordination Technology. For example, pharmacists make extensive use of information technology to share work and coordinate patient care (Goldin calls pharmacy “the most egalitarian of professions”). Because information is compiled and shared readily, the pharmacist who begins an order and checks patient information for complications does not also have to be the same pharmacist who processes the order, prepares the doses, interacts with the patient, or works with that patient long-term. This approach allows pharmacists to work more humane and flexible schedules, while still performing effectively.

Even in less substitutable work environments, information technology can enable employees to remain connected when working remotely and help teams coordinate actions. Home-based Internet, smartphones, project management software, and helpful computer programs such as FreeConferenceCall, Google docs, gotomyPC, and JoinMe (to name a few) allow employees to remain accessible to clients/management and to share work. Before expanding workplace flexibility, you need to have the proper support systems in place.

So workplace flexibility is a key to attracting and retaining talent. If properly managed, with an eye towards effective job redesign, flexibility can also enhance performance.

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USAID Landscape Survey: Mobiles and Youth Workforce Development


Youth make up 17 percent of the world’s population and 40 percent of the world’s unemployed, according to the International Labor Organization. A number of factors combine to make sustainable, decent employment an enormous challenge for youth the world over, including low levels of education and technical skills, slow job growth, lack of information about available jobs, and difficulties accessing financial capital to start small enterprises. Decent jobs are especially difficult to find for rural youth, girls and women, and youth with disabilities.

In addition to the growth in youth unemployment, access to and use of mobile technologies (e.g., mobile phones, tablets, eReaders, radio, portable media players, SD cards) among youth worldwide is also expanding. This has created excitement about the potential of mobile devices to catalyze new approaches that address some of the constraints keeping youth from finding and sustaining decent livelihoods. Documentation and evidence of impact in the broad field of mobile technology and youth workforce development (mYWD) is lacking, however, meaning that it has been difficult to identify where mobile technology and youth workforce development initiatives overlap and where mobile may have the greatest added value.


After a year of hard work, we’ve launched the mEducation Alliance’s Mobiles for Youth Workforce Development (mYWD) Landscape Review, an effort supported by The MasterCard Foundation and USAID. The review maps out who is doing what and where, and to the extent possible, discusses evidence of what is working. The body of the report answers questions such as:

  • What organizations and programs are using mobiles to help overcome the barriers to employment for youth?
  • What type of programming has been implemented and how?
  • Where do prime opportunities exist for integrating mobile devices into youth workforce development programs?
  • What are relevant considerations related to gender and disability in mYWD programming?
  • What factors facilitate or hinder mYWD in specific contexts?
  • Are there any research findings that show the impact of mobiles on youth workforce development?

In addition, the annexes provide information on 80 initiatives and over 275 publicly available documents describing efforts that use mobile technology to support youth workforce development programming in five key areas:

  • Workforce education and training, including basic education, technical and vocational education and training (TVET), job skills training, apprenticeships, and life skills training (in and out of the classroom).
  • Employment services, including on-going job referral services that bring employers and workers together through job postings, job fairs, job shadowing, job placement, resume preparation, and coaching.
  • Entrepreneurship and enterprise development, including support programs for self-employment and business development, such as entrepreneurship training, mentoring, and financial services for loans and capital.
  • Demand-side policies and programs, including broad-based economic growth programs like national youth employment policies, value chain development, public works programs, wage subsidies, minimum wages, and tax breaks for employers (JBS International, 2013).
  • Addressing social norms, including programs that support effective participation of excluded groups, non-traditional skills training, safe training and employment spaces for excluded youth, and broader awareness campaigns.

There is an enormous amount of activity in mYWD, from small-scale, market-based start-up applications to mobile innovation hubs for youth entrepreneurs. The landscape review offers a summary of how mobile devices are used in the above five areas, draws out relevant lessons from the available literature and existing evidence base, offers advice from practitioners working in the field of mYWD, discusses the issue of scale and sustainability of mYWD programs, and offers a number of recommendations for furthering the field, including:

  • Creating a mYWD framework to aid in advancing the field
  • Further developing the evidence base for mYWD
  • Improving our understanding of what scale means
  • Focusing on gender and youth with disability
  • Improving knowledge sharing and collaboration
  • Building the mYWD evidence base through research and impact evaluation

Download the mYWD landscape review at this link or join the webinar to discuss it here

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Human Capital and Development

The Indian Experience

The papers included in this volume cover several aspects of human capital. It starts with the role of human capital in influencing productivity, employment and growth of employment. The chapters show that Indian States that have been neglecting schooling and health facilities have become victims in terms of low productivity and lower rates of employment. Consequently, employment cannot be …
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Microfinance Is Good for Women, but It’s Only Part of the Solution

Ellen Kullman (DuPont), Maria das Graças Silva Foster (Petrobras), and Chua Sock Koong (Singapore Telecommunications) lead three of the most powerful companies in the world. These women, like many other great leaders, got there by working their way up the ladder — not by founding entrepreneurial ventures. Read more

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