Somewhere between regimented top productivity and a lackadaisical work day exists a point where employees will perform the best. From what I have seen, there are many managers and business owners who fail to understand the concept.
A few years back, I took a job where, for the first time in my life, I had a specifically defined time for morning break, afternoon break and lunch. I was expected to be at my desk at a certain time in the morning, keep my head down and work until the first break, take 15 minutes and plow ahead through lunch. Same deal after lunch. Even if I used my own time, I was chased out by my manager if I lingered to finish a task 10 minutes after quitting time.
This approach was quite possibly the worst I had worked under in my life. I felt like they should blow a whistle for breaks and lunch. I never adjusted to it.
At other positions I held in the past, I was able to come in, say hello to coworkers, get a cup of coffee and ease into my day. When I last worked at an association, we had a subscription to a digital news clips service. Under the terms of the subscription, we were permitted to gather and read clips related to the industry and email them to members as a service of the association. That was my "coffee task" as I began my day. I browsed the clips and selected ones related to the business of our members. It kept me in touch with their business, which helped me as an editor of the association's publications.
As the day progressed and I worked through my other tasks, I might take a morning break 90 minutes into the day. Or three hours. No one missed me if I did not appear in a break room chair, at the water cooler or in the rest room at a certain time. I did my job, and I did not feel like I was in preschool. Sometimes I traveled to various parts of the state to speak to members, to attend various functions or to interact with our vendors. I knew it was part of the job, and it was not a problem that extra hours were involved. It was not also a problem if I ran down to the block to pick up a prescription once in a blue moon. As coworkers, we gave each other a ride from the nearby repair shop if one of our cars got an oil change during the day.
While these interruptions were not uncommon, they were not something that happened every week, either. Yet it meant a lot to employees to have a certain amount of flexibility available. The flexibility was a way the employer made deposits in the Bank Account of Good Will with employees. In return, the employees made deposits when they worked extra hours for a variety of functions that were also fairly regular.
I don't know if everything balanced on a minute-by-minute basis for each employee. The greatest benefit I saw went to the employer: Workers who felt they were trusted put in extra effort and likely were more productive. When employers show no flexibility and make each day a grind, employees have little motivation to put in that extra effort. I know I felt more comfortable with a job where I was shown respect in this regard.
Yet another previous position was at a workplace that had been quite flexible. However, they had brought in an overeducated expert who trained management on the danger of letting employees steal little bits of time through this type of flexibility. One Friday, I asked to leave 15 to 20 minutes early because I wanted to beat some traffic to get a flat tire fixed so I could get back on the road for a 75-mile drive that evening. I knew leaving before 5 would get me to a repair shop much faster than if I hit the worst of the traffic.
My supervisor would not allow me to leave early because management had been too lenient about things like this in the past. She recommended taking care of my car on Saturday or Sunday. I disagreed; I wanted it addressed because I had a lot of miles to drive that weekend. I left at 5. Traffic was awful, and I barely made it home by 9:30 p.m. The "expert" never seemed to account for minutes employees spent working through lunches, getting started early or staying late to finish a task. After it was made clear to me that there was a new "no tolerance" policy for stolen time, I made certain that no time would be stolen from my lunch breaks or after my official work hours ended. My flexible salaried job was becoming more rigid, and I felt less trusted.
I understand that flexibility is not possible in all jobs, and that some people may abuse their privileges. But I stand by the assertion that giving employees some amount of trust and flexibility will improve your bottom line more than pressuring people with rigid schedules that demotivates them. The Bank Account of Good Will goes a long way toward mutual respect and the ultimate productivity of a business.