Stifle or Support

What do companies like Apple, Microsoft, Google, Amazon and Netflix have in common?  Aside from being widely recognized as some of the best organizations in recent times, these companies have implemented innovative workplace policies that provide employees autonomy and flexibility.

Since 2004, Google has made it a priority to encourage its employees to spend 20% of their time on something of their own choosing–provided it benefited the company.  At Netflix, employees have complete control over when and how they get their job done.  They call it “no rules” rules.  Practices like these have enabled Google, Netflix, and other innovative companies of our time to recruit and retain the best talent, and ultimately ensure a healthy bottom line.

I recently shared the Netflix story with several of my colleagues. Some of the responses I received, however, left me feeling a little deflated.  I wasn’t surprised.  After all, as educators and leaders working for a public, quasi-governmental agency, it is difficult to envision having the liberty to enact nontraditional policies. And for most of us in public service, the idea of “no rules” rules and giving employees the freedom to do what they want with their time conjures up images of havoc and a complete loss of accountability.

Of course accountability is present in these nontraditional environments. In the private sector, not getting the job done usually results in having to look for another job.  

So what if a public sector employer were to implement nontraditional workplace policies? There was a time when it was commonly believed that working or learning required a specific amount of seat time. We know how that went.  Yet when it comes to staff, schools do not have the ability to allow them to set their own hours.  And other public institutions such as law enforcement, public utilities and so on are driven by the need to provide service 24-7.

I could go on listing all the barriers preventing public institutions from enacting nontraditional policies because there are many.  Instead, what if we truly examined the places where rules can be loose and where employees can have autonomy?  Or what if we looked at our policies and procedures and asked the question, “Does this [rule] stifle or support innovation?” 

Of course with flexibility comes responsibility. Employees have to earn the trust of their team members and supervisors, be willing to adapt based on feedback and accept ownership for the decisions they make about their work.  Leaders have to be willing to give up some control, indulge their employees’ ideas and interests, and commit to providing immediate, honest and direct feedback when expectations are not met.

What are ways you’ve provided employees flexibilities and freedoms?  What’s worked?  

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