Programs Embraced As Morale Booster, Business Strategy

In an effort to boost profits and meet the changing needs of an increasingly diverse employee population, U.S. employers are offering flexible work benefits that go beyond telecommuting.  HR directors at organizations that offer employees flextime, compressed workweeks, shift flexibility, job sharing, and sabbaticals, are reporting that these programs are proving to be cost-effective morale boosters that benefit company bottom lines.  “We definitely are seeing employers implementing many [flexible work options], though not all of them,” Lois Backon, senior vice president of the Families and Work Institute in New York City, said. “There still is a disconnect between what employers offer and what employees want.”

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits-all approach to what companies are offering.  According to Marcee Harris Schwartz, the New York-based director of BDO USA’s Flex program, “We do not think of flexibility as a set of options, or an employee benefit, or even a program.  We really see it as a business strategy—a strategy that can help employees manage their own working life but that also can be used as a tool to help teams and leaders run their business.”

A good example of how implementing a workplace flexibility strategy can help the bottom line can be found at Margolin, Winer & Evens, an accounting firm in Garden City, N.Y..  The company established a summer sabbatical program for the company’s 200 employees in 2009, and allows people to take time off to do whatever they like.  Under the accounting firm’s sabbatical initiative, employees must take a minimum of four weeks off work, every year.  They use their vacation time first, and are reimbursed for the remaining time off at 20% of their normal salary.  The sabbatical program offers the firm an option to laying off workers during the slower summer months, while saving scarce labor dollars.

Best Practices

Experts on flexible work arrangements offered the following advice:

  1. Change the culture, not just the tools.  While the technology is key to a successful flexibility program, it is also very important to bring in new management and leadership skills.  Many managers in the U.S. learned how to supervise employees by “walking around the office”.  This works well in a standard office environment, but doesn’t “fit” the virtual workplace.  As a result, management needs to learn how to manage results, using tools like performance management, that focus on company goals.
  2. Build a business case for workplace flexibility.   It is critical to have managers that champion the flexible work environment, and are willing to partner with HR and other groups that are part of the change, so the business case (and benefits) are clear to everyone.  Options like telecommuting and compressed workweeks might increase employee job satisfaction and morale, but they won’t succeed in the long run without executives and line managers that buy into the plan(s).
  3.  Pay attention to generational differences.  Flexible work benefits are definitely a key to attracting and retaining talent today.  For example, Generation Y see’s career and work as important, but not necessarily more important that having a life outside of the office.  Meanwhile, baby-boomers want different career options and life options as well.  Most boomers are looking at remaining in the workforce longer due the difficult economy, and the fact that many are dealing with elder care and child care simultaneously.
  4. Train managers.  Since the most important relationship in a successful company is between he employee and their supervisor, it is absolutely critical to train management on how to best manage employees with flexible work arrangements.  The best solutions provide a win-win for the team, the organization and the individuals.
  5. Encourage different approaches.  One of the most significant hurdles facing an organization that wants to implement a flexible work environment, is the question of “equality”.  It can be tough when the boss gets stuck in “being fair to everyone” mode.  Unfortunately, there are jobs that simply cannot be successfully completed virtually, so the best idea is to let each work group determine their best solution together.
  6. Start small.  The best way to implement a flexibility program is to kick-off a pilot program that has clear-cut metrics for the outcomes you are looking for.  Once you know what to measure and how to get the data, your company can roll out a larger, more comprehensive strategy.

Based on a BNA article, written by Rhonda Smith

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