Companies are finding that providing employees with flexibility does more than help attract and retain top talent: It can also improve the bottom line.
According to a study by Workplace Trends, almost 70 percent of human resources leaders use workplace flexibility programs for recruiting and retention. But more remarkably, almost three-quarters of companies that have work flexibility programs reported increased productivity, and more than 85 percent reported improved employee satisfaction.
“Everyone’s work and personal lives are intertwined, and what happens in one part of a person’s life affects every other part,” says Laura Hamill, chief people officer at Limeade, which provides its employees with flexibility by allowing them to run errands or make appointments during the day, and by allowing everyone to work from home one day a week. Employees are likely to resent employers that expect them to work around the clock or be at work at certain times regardless of their workloads.
What is Workplace Flexibility?
The definition of workplace flexibility can be hard to nail down, as it looks different for different employees, employers, work cultures and industries. Flexible work takes dozens of forms, says Shani Magosky, founder of Vitesse Consult, which provides workplace flexibility consulting services. It’s important for employers to evaluate a variety of possibilities as they design their own unique flexible work strategies.
Some flexible options to consider, Magosky says, include:
- Full- or part-time work from home.
- Flexible days or compressed workweeks.
- Flexible hours or shifts.
- Part-time jobs.
- Job sharing.
- Partial-year or seasonal work.
- Reduced hours.
- Phased-in returns from leave.
- Phased-in retirement.
- Extended leaves.
- Borrowing vacation days or other paid time off.
- Ad hoc flexibility, such as being able to run an urgent errand during the workday.
Offering flexible hours is one of the most common ways employers create flexible workplaces. In a workplace flexibility survey by the Society for Human Resource Management, more than half of respondents said they offer an informal flexible program of “no core hours,” and another quarter said they had a formal program in place to let employees work flexible hours.
According to the Workplace Trends study, employers aren’t always aware of how much employees value workplace flexibility. Only half of employers said workplace flexibility was the most important benefit their employees want, while three-fourths of employees said it’s their top benefit choice.
How Does Workplace Flexibility Benefit Employers?
A strong culture of workplace flexibility pays off in a variety of ways. On a day-to-day level, it makes it easy to ask employees for a little extra when business needs require it. When employees feel the company is generous with flexibility, they respond in kind when there is a big deadline approaching or a special circumstance that requires them to stay late or come in on the weekend, Hamill says.
Giving employees flexible work options so they can find better work-life balance can boost engagement and productivity, says Michelle Roccia, executive vice president of employee engagement at WinterWyman. According to the SHRM study, a third of employers said absenteeism rates dropped after implementing a telecommuting program, and two-thirds said productivity rose.
7 Steps to Building an Effective Flexible Workplace
Building an effective flexible workplace also requires creating a culture of respect and trust, and finding ways to make flexibility work for the business and its employees. Here’s how.
Workplace flexibility works best when there’s a high level of trust and respect within the organization, says Joanie Connell, founder of Flexible Work Solutions. “Managers trust their employees to be responsible, employees trust their managers to be reasonable and employees
trust each other to be team players.” In this type of environment, everyone respects each other’s needs and desires for flexibility, and everyone is willing to be flexible to meet the needs of the team and the organization.
Magosky agrees and says, “the biggest barrier to flexibility, by a wide margin, is management fear and mistrust. If there isn’t a strong commitment from the top down, any flexibility program will be merely window dressing, not reality.” The company’s attitude toward flexibility must be set in the C-suite and then cascade down to individual contributors.
IT consulting firm Solution Street makes it a point to avoid micromanaging employees when they want to take advantage of flexible work hours, says Sarah Longwell, hiring manager for the company. For example, if an employee has a doctor’s appointment or a child’s baseball game to attend, the company doesn’t require the employee to take an entire day off.
Find Flexibility for Everyone
Flexible workplaces need to find ways to provide appropriate flexibility for different roles. Of course, it’s much easier for people in some positions to take advantage of most flexibility options, such as telecommuting or flexible schedules. But some employees — such as receptionists, admins, people on assembly lines or who work in the field, and some managers — need to be on-site to do much, if not all, of their work, Roccia says. Those people may find it unfair that they can’t take advantage of all the flexibility options their colleagues enjoy.
In these cases, she recommends working with employees to understand their roles and why they may not be as flexible as others. If possible, employers should work with the employees to find other perks they may value more. For example, people who do shift work may be able to rotate shifts, if they’re interested in doing so. Job-sharing or staggered work hours can also provide some flexibility.
Consider an Application
It takes certain skills to be successful in a flexible work environment, Magosky says. Establishing eligibility for a flexible work program and requiring an application or evaluation can keep the program objective and consistent. “Job role, length of service, performance history, facility with online collaboration/communication technology tools and willingness to return to a normal work schedule if it doesn’t work out are among the relevant criteria to consider.”
Existing employees will have a track record of success on which to evaluate their competence, but it can be more difficult to screen new candidates for employment to ensure they’re a fit to work flexibly. “At a minimum, applicants for a flexible role should demonstrate a consistent track record of high achievement, effective time management skills, and excellent written and verbal communication skills.”
Putting together a formal flexibility program can help, too. At Limeade, the company’s approach to flexibility is spelled out in the employee handbook. “We ask that everyone works at least 5 hours between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m., but the other three hours a day can be on the employee’s own terms,” Hamill says.
Measure and Manage It
An organization that wants to implement a flexibility program should do so strategically by first establishing goals and metrics for measuring progress toward those goals, Magosky says. Tracking productivity metrics, recruiting and retention statistics, employee engagement survey results, revenue growth, cost savings or growth in new markets can help establish whether the flexibility program is paying off.
And while work flexibility — especially when it comes to telecommuting or flexible hours — relies on trust, employers still need to verify work is getting done. Finding a balance between managing and micromanaging is key. If people are dropping projects or missing deadlines, then it’s important to address the problems in a timely manner. “Don’t let them fester. If someone is not performing or missing deadlines or goals because of flexible work schedule, it needs to be addressed,” Roccia says.
Communication is at the core of a successful flexible workforce, Connell says. When people aren’t working face-to-face, the chance of miscommunication increases greatly because it’s more difficult to monitor and interpret emotions and the meaning of messages. “I recommend that teams put together a communication plan at the outset of a project to agree on how different types of information will be communicated and at what speed.”
For example, everyone should be on the same page when it comes to the definition of “an emergency,” Connell says. Other questions include whether it’s acceptable to call someone at home on a day off and how quickly team members are expected to respond to emails.
Ensure your employees have the tools they need to communicate and collaborate, Magosky says. While email, smartphones and IM are a good start, tools such as video conferencing, shared file storage, a user-friendly customer relationship management system and a modern project management platform are also necessary.
Longwell says employees at Solution Street use join.me to share screens when collaborating remotely. “With this tool, everyone is in the loop and no one misses important details.”
If your flexibility policies result in less face time among employees, find other ways to build community within your organization, Magosky says. “Even when people don’t work in the same physical location, it’s still important to connect with others and build relationships inside and outside immediate teams. This will create cohesion and increase the sense of ownership and empowerment.”
For example, when she ran an all-virtual firm, Magosky says, staff members had to turn on their video when they were teleconferencing so they could see each other in their native environments — “diplomas, half-eaten lunches and pets included.”
Tell Others About It
Finding people who thrive in a flexible workplace means recruiting for them. Ensure your job listings are clear about where work will take place most often, what the job involves and how long your projects will last, says Dan Finnigan, CEO of Jobvite. Promoting a culture of work-life balance can help ensure you find people who know how to make it work for themselves and the company, and help strengthen your company culture.
Companies that already have a culture of openness and trust have already done a lot of the hard work toward building a flexible workforce. An organization with a history of micromanaging employees or measuring productivity through face time may experience more challenges when trying to implement a flexible work program.
The benefits of higher productivity and more engaged employees make the efforts worth it, however. As companies face the challenge of recruiting and retaining top talent in an improving economy, flexible workplaces are seen as employers of choice.