Inching toward workplace flexibility as the new normal

The editor of a new book on workplace flexibility says 'poverty of imagination' has hindered our ability to think of work in different ways. Looking for creative workplace solutions? Ask the employees.
Written by Melanie D.G. Kaplan, Inactive

If your company could lower recruitment and training costs, improve its corporate image, reduce absenteeism and sick leave and boost morale, don’t you think that would be a no-brainer? All it takes is a little flexibility.

The recent White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility and a new book, Workplace Flexibility: Realigning 20th-Century Jobs for a 21st-Century Workforce, bring some national attention to the issue. Yesterday I talked to the book’s co-editor, Kathleen Christensen, who directs the Workplace, Work Force and Working Families program at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation.

You were recently at the White House for the Forum on Workplace Flexibility with both the President and the First Lady. Was that the first time something like that had taken place?

Yes. In the Clinton administration, there had been a White House meeting on child care, but there has never been, as far as I know, any kind of meeting that really has addressed the issues around the need for more workplace flexibility. The message was: There are companies on the ground that are doing this now, there are labor unions putting it into their contract language, and it’s important we understand the issues and draw national attention to it.

For 15 years, you’ve been studying this mismatch between the way families have changed but the workplace has not. Why has it taken so long for employers to meet the needs of these workers who want greater flexibility?

There are certainly employers that have been meeting the needs, so I wouldn’t say it hasn’t been happening. Why has it taken so long? People get used to doing things in a certain way. People have thought of these problems as private problems, but when you realize there are millions of private problems, it becomes a public problem. Before, you had a male breadwinner who went to work and turned off his mind to everything going on at home. We have a very different workforce today.

When I think of a flexible workplace, I think of employees who work a compressed week—a full workweek in four days. But what lesser-known scenarios are being implemented in workplaces?

One thing we found that people really like is the idea of a part-year arrangement, instead of part-time during a week. If you work a 90 percent year, and you take 10 percent off and add that to vacation, that provides a chunk of time. So if someone is a tax accountant, they may work flat-out during tax season and take more time off during the course of a summer. I think part-year has proven to be much more appealing and interesting. In certain professions it’s hard to put boundaries on work during a week—you’re working on a deadline or a specific project-- and it’s easier to take a chunk of time off.

One thing we’re seeing from some companies is that instead of flexibility being negotiated on an individual basis, it’s negotiated on a team basis, and the team assumes responsibility. Chubb did that in claims processing of their Southwest division. The team was told the goal was to increase performance, and they could figure out the schedule. They decided to compress work weeks to a four-day week. Performance went up, and over time, costs went down.

If flexibility becomes a standard, then if someone works flexibly, they’re not the deviant. At some places it is the standard--IBM, Ernst & Young. It’s the new normal.

What are some solutions that companies have tried that haven’t worked?

Everything that has worked has also not worked. There is no magic bullet of flexibility, like if you just figure out how to make part-time work, it will work for everyone. The reality is you have to look at the nature of your business, your work flow, who makes up your workforce and what they are looking for. The key is not thinking there is a perfect answer.

But what many companies have realized doesn’t work is people having to give reasons for flexibility. So companies have gone to reason-neutral flexibility. They don’t want managers to have to decide between employees wanting time off because of a sick child, or a class, or because someone’s mother has a broken hip.

What countries are doing a good job with flexibility, and what can we learn from them?

In Europe there is a much stronger role of the national government, and in many of the countries a much stronger role for organized labor. So you see more mandates, like in the Netherlands and Scandinavia, for time off or part-time. Australia is more similar to the U.S. in terms of a smaller role for the government. Australia has followed the model put in place by Great Britain—legislation that gives employees the right to ask for flexibility. In Great Britain that has been limited to employees who have very young children. But the important thing is that their right-to-ask legislation was put into place, and it wasn’t arbitrary. It was the result of a government-supported process that involved major stakeholders from business, labor and advocacy groups to determine what would be the best legislative approach for flexibility. So far, it seems the legislation has been effective and well-received, and there is talk about extending it beyond employees with young children.

How important is technology for workplace flexibility?

Technology makes a huge difference. It’s possible now that one could be working seamlessly in any number of different places, times, time zones. The upside of that is that one can construct a very flexible arrangement. The downside is that you could be working everywhere, all the time. There are companies that really recognize that. In the October issue of the Harvard Business Review, Leslie Perlow did a study with Boston Consulting to determine the effects on work, productivity engagements, morale--if people had Blackberry-free times; or work-free events; or work-free days. It was remarkable. The amount and quality of work stayed the same and the other qualities went up.

And how important is creativity in coming up with solutions?

I think the factor that plays the most important role is will. And with that is imagination. What has hindered that is the poverty of imagination—being able to imagine work being done any way but how it’s been done in the past. So many of the managers have discovered if you go back to the employees and say, “This is the issue we’ve got—you want flexibility, and we have an issue of coverage and spiraling costs,” the managers have, time in and time out, been amazed at the ideas that come forward.

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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