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Making flexibility consistent

Making flexibility consistent

Ever hear from a frustrated employee who says he ran into a brick wall when he asked for a flex option while the woman in the cube next to him is happily working from home two days a week, or flexing her hours? We all know it’s the one thing every employee wants, and nearly all large companies are now saying they offer it, but just how consistent is workplace flexibility?

For managers who are used to hallway management, it means change, and as a wise person once said, the only people who like change are wet babies. Some managers get it, are able to adjust and eventually see that a manager who learns to track results and deliverables is a better manager. Some don’t. So some employees get flexibility and some don’t. How does one keep it from being a function of a supervisor’s whims and fears? We talked with those in charge of the effort at four organizations, who were willing to share some of the steps they’ve taken to introduce and systematize the process. We asked them about what worked and what didn’t, and the obstacles and challenges they’ve met and resolved. What would they do differently? What were they most proud of? We thought their stories might be valuable for those just rolling out flexibility, or taking a fresh look.

A pilot to iron out the kinks

There’s nothing like CEO support to jump start flexibility, and at the first company we interviewed it was actually the CEO’s idea. The utility runs the grid that brings power to several Eastern states; workload is extremely heavy, workers are stressed, and he saw telecommuting as a way to motivate and retain them. They brought in a consultant to help roll it out, proposed a pilot to iron out the kinks before going company-wide. In an initial meeting of volunteer teleworkers the purpose of the pilot was emphasized – to find things that were going wrong and fix them.

They set goals for productivity, agreed on the design of two evaluations – three months and six months – and handed out laptops, printers and faxes. The pilot exceeded all goals, but some managers were still hesitant, afraid that once the door was open everyone would want to work from home. So the consultant conducted a company-wide survey and found the number who would (and whose jobs allowed them to) take advantage of the option was not overwhelming.

After the pilot, the rollout

Again, strong and visible support from top management, this time from the company’s senior VP. It made a difference. She began the process by sending an e-mail to staff to introduce the rollout. Information sessions for managers followed that included lunch and a report on the pilot. Training was offered and little by little, more chose to work from home, some just a day or two a week.

Acceptance is growing. One manager who was against the idea says he was convinced when he went to thank two engineers for the wonderful work they had just completed and was amazed to find them (and their laptops) gone; they had been working, e-mailing and telephoning from home. Evaluation has shown an enormous payoff in performance, retention and morale. Next on their calendar: a push to expand to other kinds of flexibility, and more pilots.

“Everything is relationships”

Formal flexibility may sound oxymoronic, but informal often means inconsistent. A University we interviewed wanted a more formal program and their internal auditors wanted some documentation – a paper trail – when an employee switched to a flex arrangement. The coordinator of family services explained that their flexibility website allowed them to satisfy everyone, and we think it could be anyone’s model. The site is easy to access from the company’s home page and offers supervisors an enormous amount of help. It includes an operations manual, protocols for five flexible work options, and instructions for everything from how to set up an agreement to how to say no when flexibility won’t work.

Initially they let their HR reps get the word out, but now they’re targeting managers, working on getting the right message to the right people. The Website is valuable, says the woman in charge of the effort, “but if I were to start over, I’d spend more time working with people one-on-one, more time listening to their concerns.” She’s doing that now, making herself and the flexibility she represents very visible, visiting employees, working with supervisors, discussing their challenges and helping them develop a system that works. “Everything,” she adds, “is relationships.”

Pilots allow issues to be worked out

The third organization we looked at was a hospital, and their manager of work-life initiatives agreed that one-on-one is a key to success. Their focus has been on telework, beginning with pilots and training both telecommuters and managers. Two pilot groups were chosen initially, the first for business reasons (lack of space) and the other, a group of information services workers, because their long commutes and 24/7 hours were making their lives so stressful. The pilots have allowed the organization to work out technical and confidentiality issues, and while they were in progress, more people have been allowed to try working from home, job sharing and other flex arrangements. Most were sent by senior managers who were looking for ways to retain valued staff. And each experience has been used to formulate the guidelines that will eventually make the process replicable.

At one firm, a language change

Even those we consider best practice companies have had trouble ironing out the rocky challenge of consistency. Our fourth interviewee had seemed to us to be kind of a flexibility laboratory, constantly setting new standards, seeing what worked and raising the bar. “When we used the term work-life,” said the person who had been their work-life manager, “people thought of it as a program for working mothers. We wanted them to understand that flexibility was for everyone. So we really worked on the language.” Today, her title has been changed to “Flexibility Strategy Leader” and the word ‘flexibility’ is beginning to roll off the tongues of the leadership team.”

“Flexibility is every employee’s right”

It’s been a top to bottom effort, communicated at every opportunity. Their CEO says loud and often that flexibility is every employee’s right. A network of HR staff pitches it at every opportunity, and managers are constantly working in messages that communicate the importance of flexibility – about planning a vacation, spending time with family, taking advantage of the flexibility available to them. “Years ago,” says our interviewee, “we just assumed everything was an emergency. Now we make sure our staff asks their clients the right questions, questions we wouldn’t even have thought to ask then – like ‘When do you need this? Is it critical? Urgent? Do we need to assemble a team right away or can it wait until Monday?’ ”

Any employee can give feedback

They’ve begun to track formal FWAs (the number is increasing steadily) and assess the success of managers and supervisors in creating a flexible work environment. A question in their yearly 360° survey gives every staff member a once-a-year opportunity to give feedback about any executive, as many as they want. The question: “How effectively does this person foster a positive work environment and help our people grow.” The feedback is now used on performance evaluations, and they’re also beginning to track the number of flex workers who are promoted.

And a few more lessons learned

Here are a few more lessons learned from our interviews, tips on which they all seem to agree: Make your flexibility effort as collaborative as you can by working with those responsible for EAP, disability, workman’s comp, ergonomics and health, among others. Make sure you understand the legalities involved with FWAs. Tie your effort to business goals and keep your arguments business-centered, not employee centered. Make your communications inviting and positive rather than threatening – an open door, not a total change. Measurement is critical. Don’t forget about the impact on co-workers. And it wouldn’t be a bad idea to remember the age-old dictum of the health care field: “First, do

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