There is a common misconception among business leaders that “workplace flexibility” is just a concessionary benefit for employees that comes at a cost to employers. But like many things, it is fear of the unknown that propagates perception.
In truth, the benefits to employees translate to strong, measurable positive outcomes for companies. They go hand in hand, and as skilled workers and professionals in general become more of a premium, organizations that offer progressive workplace programs will remain highly competitive.
Under this erroneous umbrella are three leading ideas:
- “If I can’t see them, they aren’t working” [read: trust is an issue].
- “It’s something managers handle individually with direct reports” [read: at best, it is a micro, not macro issue].
- “We offer flexibility, but no one participates” [read: the culture doesn’t support it].
Let’s address these myths and explain how the opposite is actually the reality.
Never Underestimate The Value of Trust
Companies still foster unfounded concerns that employees will not perform at optimal levels if not bound to a traditional office setting and schedule. In reality, managers would do best to embrace workplace flexibility as a tool that increases productivity.
The Wall Street Journal reported on a Brigham Young University study on IBM’s workforce: In a startling finding, researchers discovered telecommuters on flextime schedules can cram in 19 more hours of work a week, compared with people who work entirely in the office, before they begin to report work-family conflict.
And there are many studies and stories of the like. According to the Telework Research Network: Sun Microsystems’ experience suggests that employees spend 60% of the commuting time they save performing work for the company. AT&T workers work five more hours at home than their office workers. American Express workers produced 43% more than their office-based counterpoints. Small and medium sized businesses (SMBs) are seeing similar results.
Trust is a significant factor holding managers back from endorsing and allowing flexible work options. We hear this a lot, but I think it’s more about confidence. Confidence in the employees’ ability to get the job done of their own accord. Confidence in the supervisor’s ability to manage a team remotely. I see it time and again — once company leaders realize that different options can work with the team they have in place, they are accepting of the program.
Coming from the Top
Company leaders often view workplace flexibility as “a nice-to-have perk” that individual managers can dispense like candy at their discretion. This view has two flaws that ultimately damage the program’s chance for success.
First, this “tactical” perspective diminishes the strategic value that flexibility can bring to the organization. When managers are left to manage flexible options on an ad-hoc basis with no formal policy or centralized guidelines, the potential power is diluted. Such an approach can’t be measured or improved upon with best practices, and likely doesn’t have the funding or resources to implement a long-term initiative.
This approach can also create disparity and division between business functions within the organization. Imagine that the finance department head fully embraces seasonal work schedules or teleworking options while marketing management requires a more traditional 9-to-5/in-the-office model. Will flexibility start to be seen only as a benefit for the select few? Can these two teams work cohesively and collaboratively with different mindsets around productivity? Will frustration and lack of communication create conflict when there should be community? Yes, these issues will arise if programs aren’t delivered equally.
Flexible work options aren’t seen as vital if stakeholders across the organization can’t see the inherent value of improved productivity and increased employee satisfaction. Senior management and HR can’t just create a flexible work policy, communicate it to managers and hope it sticks. The benefits of flexibility have to be communicated as a shared vision, then measured and monitored as a way of meeting strategic objectives. When leaders begin to view flexibility as a solution to a broad range of business issues across functional channels, they’ll see measurable results.
Concept Becomes Cultural Reality
On the surface, flexibility is already part of the new workplace culture. WorldatWork found that, by far, the most prevalent flexibility programs offered are part-time schedules (with or without benefits), flex-time (flexible start/stop times) and telework on an ad-hoc basis (meet a repair person, sick child). These programs are each offered to some or all employees in more than 80% of companies, with more than two-thirds of organizations (68%) offering all three programs.
But simply offering flexible options is not enough. Encouragement and leading by example have to be part of the formula, or employees are afraid to ask for or use these benefits.
According to a recent study by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Families and Work Institute, employees are not confident that their use of flexible work options won’t have negative implications.
For flexibility programs to be effective, employees must have confidence that they are creating long-term alignment between work and personal/family life, not trading future career opportunities for working a few hours at home. They will not succeed if they are not supported both by management and the day-to-day work processes of the organization.
The widespread use of flexible work options will become part of an organization’s DNA when leaders embrace it as corporate doctrine. At Mom Corps, our corporate team makes strategic decisions based on our five core values, one of which is Responsible Flexibility. That value states, “We practice what we preach by living lives with work-life synthesis. We live well, we work hard and we never take advantage of the gift of flexibility.”
To conclude, company leaders are slowly beginning to realize bottom line benefits to creating and sustaining a flexible work culture. Coming on the heels of National Telework Week, studies overwhelmingly show a return on this investment in the form of reduced attrition, absenteeism, and overhead.
Enabling your employees to work responsibly, communicating a company-wide flexibility offering and leading by example overcomes the barriers to success. Make the concept an integral part of your company’s value proposition, not just a required paragraph in your management handbook.