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The modern workplace: defining flexible work arrangements

ORA staffer's laptop with sticker "This is my office"

In today’s work environment, many departments at Stanford recognize the constraints of the traditional nine-to-five workday at the office and are exploring workplace structures that support flexibility and better work-life integration for employees.

If you are like the average worker in the Bay Area, your commute time is 60 minutes or longer. Long commutes—and the stresses and environmental concerns that come with them—are all issues that employees must contend with daily. Many employers are recognizing that for some, job satisfaction may be negatively affected before the workday even starts.

According to Global Workplace Analytics, about 40 percent more companies in the U.S. now offer flexible work options compared to five years ago. Just take a look at Fortune Magazine’s 2018 list of 100 Best Places To Work For and you’ll see that 86 of the companies offer flexible work.

Flexible work arrangements such as telecommuting, flexible or alternative scheduling, job sharing and remote working not only benefit the employee, but can also benefit the employer by improving productivity and efficiency. At Stanford, the various types of flexible work arrangements are defined in detail by Administrative Guide Memo 2.1.20: Staff Telecommuting and Remote Working. The policy also outlines the eligibility guidelines and expectations to consider when a manager is discussing a flexible work arrangement with an employee.

The Graduate School of Education (GSE) and the Office of Research Administration (ORA) are among several schools and business units across the university that have already implemented and experimented with flexible work arrangements. Priscilla Fiden, associate dean of administration for GSE, and Russell Brewer, associate vice president for ORA, say that a flexible work program has transformed the way they work.


Faculty and staff working together, apart


A year ago, the GSE introduced a flexible work program that includes telecommuting once a week to better engage staff and to attract top talent.

Priscilla shares, “As an education school we’re open to learning and doing things in new, innovative and fresh ways. So when the opportunity to explore new ways to work came up, it wasn’t surprising how willing the staff and faculty leadership were to give it a try.”

At first, both staff and managers expressed concern that administrative staff would be unable to provide the same level of faculty support, which would negatively impact productivity. To address those concerns, the dean’s office administrative team worked together to come up with solutions to address concerns and directly asked for buy-in and support from faculty members.

John Willinsky, Khosla Family Professor of Education, was very supportive when administrative associate Darby Kerr approached him about participating in GSE’s work-from-home program one day a week.

“So many of a faculty member's administrative needs can be handled electronically,” John says. “Darby's telecommuting makes for a three-way environmentally beneficial efficiency gain through reduced paper use, processing steps and commuting time.”

Since starting the program, Priscilla reports that morale is high among staff participating in the program, as is productivity. Supervisors have reported that their staff feel appreciated and supported, and are willing to do what it takes to make the program a continued success. This summer, the GSE will experiment with expanding the program to twice a week in hopes that they can continue to see the same results.

“The key to our success thus far has been the mindset we’ve adopted,” Priscilla says. “We’re committed to trying this program, so when concerns come up, we listen and think about how we can adjust or adapt to make this work.”

Testing the waters

Flexible or alternate scheduling allows people to
adjust their commutes, and technology allows them
to be available even when not in the office.

On any given day of the week, ORA staff may be working from 60 different locations according to Russell.   

In 2012, as the unit was preparing to move from the main campus to offices located at Porter Drive, Russell recalls the moment that made him take a step back and question how they could work differently.  

“I saw staff coming to work over-stressed because of long commutes, dense office spaces and I knew we had to do something different,” he says.  So together with his leadership team, a flexible work and work-from-home program was introduced allowing staff to commute during non-peak hours or telecommute once week.

The first year yielded such positive outcomes that the program was expanded to two days per week in 2016.

“Not only was our productivity up and absenteeism down, but our staff was happier. I think we are going to continue moving even further in the direction of telecommuting,” Russell adds.

How technology keeps us future-focused and connected

At the core of implementing a successful flexible work program is the technology that enables people to work from anywhere.

Russell has made it a priority by arming ORA staff with the right tools. Staff use video conferencing tools like Zoom for meetings and everyone, no matter where they are working,  must have their cameras turned on to connect visually. Also, laptops using Cisco Jabber allow staff to answer their desk lines through the computer. While they’ve adopted new technologies, Russell feels it’s equally important to be deliberate about maintaining a sense of community through regular all-hands meetings and other activities that staff attend in person.

For the GSE staff, taking advantage of technology including videoconferencing and instant messaging tools such as Slack are equally as important as simply being transparent. Staff with flexible schedules or telecommute days are encouraged to keep their Outlook calendar updated so their colleagues and faculty can see when they are in or out of the office. The GSE staff have also made weekly video check-ins a regular practice, and will soon experiment with piloting a moving iPad (on a stand) for some of their weekly ad-hoc video chats.

Learn more

Read more information on flexible work arrangements, staff telecommuting and remote work policies and best practices for Managing a Virtual Workplace in the Manage & Lead section of Cardinal at Work.

To learn more about ORA’s journey to an open work environment and the role flexible work arrangements and telecommuting played to create an effective and collaborative workplace, read the Q&A with Russell Brewer, AVP for ORA.

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