The Art of the Workplace I-Deal

Managers should embrace specialized work arrangements — with a few caveats.

The Art of the Workplace I-Deal

Denise Rousseau

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The pandemic has changed many things over the past three years, particularly in the workplace, where untold thousands of empty office cubicles bear mute testimony to the seismic shift created by employees who either left jobs or now work remotely.

And employees who stayed on board have significantly more leverage than they did before COVID-19. Emboldened by their newfound power, they’re increasingly inclined to ask for special circumstances and treatment.

Denise Rousseau and Laurie Weingart, professors at prestigious Carnegie Mellon University, have coined a name for it: Idiosyncratic deals, or i-deals.

How should managers and organizations react to these requests? If they’re smart, they’ll do whatever they can to meet these employee demands — with a few caveats, says Rousseau, a professor of organizational behavior and public policy at Carnegie Mellon’s Heinz College of Information Systems and Public Policy and the Tepper School of Business.

“Employers used to be reluctant to offer flexibility and alternative ways of working but many have come to accept it as normal. And in truth, there’s no going back.”

Benefits abound

There’s compelling evidence to support that stance, says Rousseau, who’s spent a good portion of her academic career studying the workplace ramifications of customized work arrangements. Employees that receive i-deals are 22% more likely to say they’re satisfied with their jobs and are graded 4% higher in work performance by supervisors.

In addition, i-deals can help minimize turnover — no small thing in today’s pinched labor market — and make employees more productive by granting requests to eliminate certain responsibilities that aren’t critical to their jobs, she says.

Moreover, i-deals can enhance managers’ bona fides as supportive and nurturing bosses as well as make organizations more appealing places to work. Furthermore, i-deals are fairer than giving pay increases, Rousseau adds.

“One advantage of giving people i-deals instead of more money is you’re not changing the basic compensation system, which employees use as a barometer of fairness,” she points out. “Just giving people more money is unfair because the person getting more money isn’t necessarily a better performer than those who aren’t getting more money for doing the same job.

“So this is a troubling approach from both an ethical and a justice perspective. But if you can give employees other things to make them feel appreciated, like special training or customized work hours, that’s more likely to be seen as fair by their peers.”

It’s not about money

As a matter of fact, when employees request i-deals, making more money actually ranks lower than other considerations.

“Employees certainly still bargain for more money,” Rousseau says. “But it’s usually a secondary concern — about fifth on a list of the most common things for which they bargain.”

So what do employees usually ask for? New duties with a particular focus on career development. Flexibility to accommodate burdens in their personal lives, such as caring for elderly parents, children with special needs, daycare pressures or even illness. Less traveling to reduce family pressures. Remote work to eliminate stressful and time-consuming commutes. Or even a reduction in work hours, perhaps to pursue an advanced academic degree or achieve more work-life balance.

Most i-deals are bargained by people with their current employer. But managers also can use them to “sweeten the pot” to attract new employees and get them on board quickly, since employees are harder to find these days and many human resources departments are currently understaffed and less able to help with hiring, Rousseau adds.

Transparency is critical

It’s easy to understand how i-deals might be unsettling to both managers and organizations. After all, making exceptions for employees can lead to jealousy and resentment from colleagues compared to a one-size-fits-all approach.

Moreover, many managers don’t know the ins and outs of how to make special arrangements work and this unfamiliarity makes it easier to dismiss such requests rather than grant them.

But Rousseau refutes those rationales, noting that standardized, well-designed systems only work if they meet all employees’ needs.

“Individual employees aren’t exactly the same,” she notes. “So offering them a little flexibility can make a huge difference in their quality of life.”

Transparency is critical to successful i-deals. At staff or team meetings, managers should make a point of explaining why certain employees get i-deals approved. In addition, i-deals should only be approved for valued and high-performing employees; doing otherwise runs the risk of a negative reaction from co-workers.

The bottom line: Keeping i-deals a secret isn’t a good idea, Rousseau says. (Though some things must be kept private for legal reasons, such as medical issues, for example.)

“I would use the public scrutiny test,” she advises. “If you tell the person to whom you’re giving an i-deal not to tell anyone else, you probably shouldn’t do it. Or think about how people would react if you posted the terms of the deal on a bulletin board.”

Everybody wins

The best i-deals should create a win-win-win or a win-win-no-lose situation. In other words, it should be good for the employee, good for the organization and not create any burdens for co-workers and/or clients, Rousseau points out.

An i-deal also should be perceived as fair by co-workers and should fit well into an organization’s mission and values.

It’s also a good idea to carry out some i-deals on an experimental basis, with periodic checks to see how they’re working out. This enhances the chances the co-workers will perceive i-deals as fair because they know adjustments will be made if problems arise, she says.

On the other hand, managers should deny i-deal requests if employees are unreliable or underperformers. This offers a teachable moment where managers can explain to employees what they need to improve in order to qualify for an i-deal — effectively not saying no, just not yet.

Timing is everything

What should employees keep in mind as they try to successfully negotiate i-deals? First, it’s important to do some homework and determine if other employees have been granted i-deals and what the terms were; it always helps when a precedent has already been established.

“Managers always worry about setting precedents, so doing due diligence is important,” she says.

And like so many things, timing everything. Asking for an i-deal after an employee successfully finishes an important assignment can increase the odds of success. This also gives managers an opportunity to show how good work is rewarded and makes it easier for co-workers to accept because they see the i-deal was deserved.

“The completion of a successful project is the best time to ask for an i-deal,” Rousseau says. “And few things are more valuable to employees than well-timed rewards and recognition.”


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