More productive working at the coffee shop? Go ahead!

Employees want to choose when and where they get work done. Is that such a bad thing?

Your patio is the new office. Or perhaps Starbucks is. But wherever you make that conference call from, it’s less and less likely to be from the actual office. More people than ever want to work remotely and with flexible hours.

Technology is a big driver of this. If we’re going to log in and be connected at all hours, we expect certain freedoms.

The Families and Work Institute 2012 National Study of Employers found we actually do have more flexibility when and where to work today, compared with 2005. In 2012, 77 percent of employers offered flex time, up from 66 percent in 2005. The bad news: We have less flexibility in reducing the amount of work we do.

At 37Signals, a Web software company in Chicago, employees are encouraged to find more freedom with their time and to “recharge” daily.

“I don’t believe in the 40-hour workweek,” says 37 Signals co-founder Jason Fried, who recharges midday by reading nonfiction books and drinking tea. 37 Signals doesn’t count vacation days and (gasp!) doesn’t have meetings. Employees use group chat software to post questions, make suggestions, and “meet” as needed.

Are “loose cultures” the new trend?

Google engineers spend 20 percent of their time on creative projects, and employees can nap in “pods.”

At Mixpanel, also in the Bay area, (the men) all compete in a mustache-growing contest. And Zappos, the online shoe store famous for its quirky culture, actually requires managers to spend 10 to 20 percent of working hours “goofing off” with employees outside the office.

It’s not just tech companies either. At Gore & Associates, known for GORE-TEX, there are no managers, no titles, no org charts, and no fixed lines of authority.

So how can you create your own “loose culture”?

  • Hire the right people! Zappos has two interviews—one professional and one that’s more of a personality test.
  • Offer fewer cubicles and more open space to create a more fluid and less rule- and time-bound environment.
  • Give people the flexibility when to work as long as work gets done.
  • Provide the freedom to fail.
  • Promote fun.
  • Get rid of competitiveness and public hangings.

What’s the payoff?

The biggest advantage is that when people feel they have more freedom, they feel more innovative. Many of us are simply more productive when we have more control over where and how we work. When you give freedom to creative people, it helps liberate their talents and creativity. The biggest drawback is that not everyone works effectively in such an unstructured environment.

If you like the idea of joining a meeting while in transit—or sipping tea at Starbucks—you can thrive in a flexible work environment.

Telling workers to stay put and do what they’re told won’t cut it anymore. There’s finally a realization that we can be our own boss—as long as the work gets done.

Mary Gorges is a creative communications manager at Cisco Systems.

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