It’s become almost commonplace for employers to say they offer flexible working arrangements. But like “full benefits,” “competitive compensation,” and “holiday party,” what this actually means can vary widely. In my years writing benefits communications and “best company” applications I’ve seen some great examples of flex work done right—and quite a few examples that are not nearly so stellar. So for National Flex Day, October 16, I thought I’d compile some of the “Don’ts and Dos” of flex work:
Don’t offer flexibility as an accommodation for employees. Flexibility is great for employees, yes, but it’s also great for employers. Research consistently demonstrates that when employees can work in flexible ways recruitment, retention, and productivity go up. There are also all kinds of subtle effects, like the culture shift that can ensue when employees feel trusted. Plus not-so-subtle effects, like the real estate savings linked to a strong telecommuting program, or the increase in coverage afforded by a strategic flextime policy.
Do make sure managers and employees alike understand the business case for flex, and the training and resources are available to support them. Just because flex is instituted for business reasons, doesn’t mean the managers charged with approving and overseeing it and the employees making use of it are going to see it that way. A strong culture of flexibility always includes training for managers and, ideally, resources to help them manage team members who are working in non-traditional ways.
Don’t make flexibility a reward for good performance, or a perk of seniority. This misses the point, entirely. Employees love flexibility, but the fact that it can be a nice perk is pretty much beside the point.
Do make flexibility a possibility for everyone, and use it strategically. Done right, flexibility can improve performance all around and might even help solve some otherwise intractable performance issues. Perhaps this under-performing individual would do better on a different schedule, or that one could benefit from some distraction-free time working away from the office? As for seniority— one of the key business benefits of flex is the way it expands your applicant pool. But people who want a job with flexibility don’t want that job at some distant future date—they want it now. Why not make it an option for even brand-new employees?
Don’t automatically assume certain kinds of jobs can’t possibly be flexed. How, you ask, can our receptionist possibly work alternative hours? And what about the people in manufacturing? The unspoken assumption here is that there are only a few, clearly defined ways to work flexibly. Sure, a receptionist (probably) can’t routinely clock out at 2 or work from home three days each week, but that doesn’t mean he or she doesn’t have options.
Do encourage employees to come up with solutions that work for their roles. On a manufacturing line, the most appreciated and useful form of flexibility might simply be letting the employees work together to schedule their own shifts—trading around as needed. An executive assistant might find that shifting his schedule to arrive and leave earlier gives him more distraction-free time for work that requires it. A team of receptionists at one of my client’s offices got together and planned their schedules so each could take off one afternoon a week. (The team gets rave reviews in client-satisfaction surveys.)
Don’t make flexible work arrangements contingent on “having a good reason.” Frankly, people’s reasons for needing flexibility are nobody’s business, and attempting to rate/judge them is always going to be a subjective process. Plus, it’s likely to be very poor for morale.
Do remember that flex work arrangements aren’t about accommodating needy employees. They’re about creating a more productive, efficient, and energized culture. So people’s reasons for choosing to work flexibly should have absolutely nothing to do with it.
Don’t institute a few rigid flexible work options, and call it a day. Having specific, defined flex work policies is great. But an environment in which some employees are permanently working 10-6—with consequences if they are late–is not exactly flexible.
Do make your flexibility—well, flexible. Employee surveys tend to show that what people want and need most is day-to-day flex—the ability to work at home when the plumber’s coming, or to leave early one day for a teacher meeting. So while permanent, ongoing flex schedules can work quite well, they shouldn’t be the only thing.
Don’t define flex work only as telecommuting. A surprising number of organizations I’ve run into say they offer flexible work options but mean they offer the option to work from home. No other options. I’m not sure why it turned out this way—maybe because the business case for telecommuting can take the very tangible form of savings on real estate. But it ignores all the many ways people can flex their time while at the workplace.
Do let your imagination—and those of your employees—be the only limit to what “flex work” really means.
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