Friday, July 20, 2012

Greece's Crisis Solution: Flex Time?

Could flex-time be the 21st solution to Greece's Byzantine-era bureaucracy?

The question was posed last month at a Women in Business conference in Thessaloniki. Hosted by the British-Hellenic Chamber of Commerce, the seminar featured a presentation by the British author Alison Maitland, whose new book, Future Work: How Business Can Adopt and Thrive in the New World of Work, analyzes companies that have thrived on new models of flexibility -- pushed in large part by the need to retain women employees.

Maitland analyzes how organizations such as Ernst & Young, IBM, and Vodaphone are adapting new models of flex-time, allowing employees greater freedom in productivity. From creating a "virtual" office space via teleconferencing, to building networking lounges and removing cubicle space, to allowing employees to work from their local coffee shop, is changing the 9-5 office model on its head in many countries.

Gender has played a large role in developing this trend for two primary reasons, Maitland says: companies increasingly seek to retain women who become mothers in high-level positions, and women in leadership positions tend to be more adaptive, flexible and communicative than their male counterparts. "You don't have to 'act like a man' in order to be an effective leader as women once had to," she says.

Other featured speakers of the night agreed. "In our organization, trust and communication is very important," said Georgia Aifadopoulou, the Head of the Department of Research for the Institute of Transport in Thessaloniki. She has bucked the traditional model of top-down management in Greece, giving her employees license to question her decisions and play an active role in the decision-making process.

Adapting new models of work are critical in a country such as Greece, added Linda Gouta, the Change Management Director for Hellenic Petroleum. Women can play a critical role in bolstering the confidence of stakeholders wary of taking risks during an economic crisis. "You know the classic joke, but I'll say it again: if Lehman Brothers had been Lehman Sisters, we would have never had these problems."

Caroline Turner, Secretary General of the BHCC, speaks.
So could flex-time be the solution to Greece's bureaucratic woes? It may -- but organizational change in a country low on funds and built on systems of patronage, wasta  and hierarchy will take time. For at the heart of Maitland's argument lies an inherent value system: people want to work -- they just want more freedom when and how to do it. As one local City Hall employee told me: "Work? A government employee will do anything he can to make sure he doesn't lift a finger until the clock strikes 3. He will work as hard as he can to do nothing." 

Flex-time may have to wait.

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