The naysayers would suggest that "workplace flexibility" is just a concessionary benefit for employees that comes at a cost to employers. But like many things, it is assumptions made about the unknown that propagates perception. In truth, the benefits of flexibility to employees translate into strong, measurable positive outcomes for companies. They go hand in hand, and as attracting skilled workers and professionals in general becomes more of a challenge, organizations that offer progressive workplace programs will remain highly competitive.
There are three leading ideas that I continue to hear when talking with company execs and HR leaders: "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]. Here are some thoughts on addressing these myths and how the opposite is actually more the reality.
The Value of Trust
Companies still foster unfounded concerns that employees will not perform at optimal levels if not tied to a traditional office setting and schedule. In reality, managers that embrace workplace flexibility as a tool see increased productivity.
Stanford University released the results of a multi-year study on the effectiveness of working from home. A team at the university conducted a nine-month experiment at Ctrip, a 13,000 employee NASDAQ listed Chinese multinational firm. They gave one group of call center workers the ability to work from home, while the other group continued to work at the office. The home workers' performance increased dramatically rising by 13 percent. Home workers also reported improved work satisfaction and their job attrition rate fell by 50 percent.
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 managing a team remotely. I see it time and again--once company leaders realize that different work options can work with the team they have in place, they are accepting of the program.
Coming from the Top
Some still 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. This 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.
It 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 under some overall strategy.
Concept Becomes Cultural Reality
On the surface, flexibility is more comprehensively becoming part of the new workplace culture. But 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 and 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 advocate by living lives with work-life synthesis. We live well, we work hard and we never take advantage of the gift of flexibility."
In what ways has flexibility been indoctrinated into your company culture? Or hasn't it? Do employees feel trusted enough to participate in these programs? If not, how can company leaders lead by example?
Allison O'Kelly is founder/CEO of Mom Corps, a national professional staffing firm with a focus on flexible work. Launched in 2005, Mom Corps has helped champion the view that flexibility is a benefit to not only professionals but to the companies that employ them. More may be found at MomCorps.com and @MomCorps.