Workplace Flexibility: Make Way for 21st Century Realities

The need to incorporate flexibility into how we work and where we work is a reality that is here to stay.

How we work and where we work have been transformed by technology. Add to this the realities of an aging workforce and the fact that for most people, managing the complexity of modern life can be a full time job in and of itself. The result is a challenge for managers to find ways to accommodate the work/life balance needs of employees while maintaining the highest performance and quality.

Volumes have been written about work/life balance, one of the latest buzz-terms in workplace management. The challenge for managers and employees alike is growing and will only increase in the coming years as the ways in which we work continue to evolve.

In their book Nine Shift: Work, Life and Education in the 21st Century, William Draves and Julie Coates note that by the year 2020 nine hours of our time each day will be spent very differently than it is today due to a number of factors. Three of the nine workplace changes they identified: people working from home, the Internet replacing offices for many organizations, and networks of resources replacing the traditional structure of the organizational pyramid.

The bottom line is that these new 21st century realities require that workplaces be more flexible to meet the needs of both a new generation of workers who want autonomy and baby boomers who have outside needs, may be nearing retirement or have additional family responsibilities such as eldercare.

At a recent conference Linda Springer, director of Federal Office of Personnel Management (OPM), addressed the enormous challenge facing the Federal government in light of the coming retirement peak, which is expected to crest in 2008 - 2010. Ms. Springer advises that the Federal government, as the largest employer in the US, must make its workplace “welcoming for people who want non-traditional types of work. … One size does not fit all.” According to Ms. Springer, the new workplace will require new managers to demonstrate new skills and capabilities.

Often, the best employees try desperately to maintain their job, do their job well and at the same time balance priorities in their personal lives. This goes well beyond the needs of working parents with childcare issues. This speaks to the needs of all employees and how we accomplish our work.

The aging workforce will force organizations both public and private to be more creative in considering the workloads of individuals headed towards retirement. The present generation is clear about what they want from their employer: They want meaningful work and an acceptable work/life balance. And because it’s difficult to recruit qualified workers, organizations will have to make accommodations in order to retain valuable employees.

What Is Flexibility?

Flexibility is a way to define how and when work gets done and how functions are organized. It is a critical ingredient to overall workplace effectiveness. Today organizations also use it as a tool for improving recruitment and retention, for managing workloads, and for responding to employee diversity. Research shows that flexibility also can improve employee engagement, boost job satisfaction and reduce stress.

So what’s a manager to do if your employees want more flexibility but it’s not yet the prevailing culture or the “approved” way of doing business? What do you do if your workplace is reluctant to experiment or be creative? How can you support the needs of your employees while still supporting the organization culture?

Based on Edizen’s work with organizations, here are a few tips for managers facing the challenge to bring flexibility into their workplaces.

  • Understand your role as a manager . Time off is generally addressed through HR polices, but flexible work time is increasingly an area where managers can exercise their discretion. It is up to you to determine different hours for certain days and accommodate work/life balance issues for your employees.

  • Identify what jobs within your department can accommodate flexibility. This will make it easier when it comes time to consider employee requests. Some people may be ingrained in a certain work shift or location, but they may feel left out if others get concessions. Much has been written about the conflicts that can result if one group of employees (i.e., those with child care needs) always seems to get what is perceived to be preferential treatment. There is always a fear that if one person gets flexibility then everyone will want it.

  • When an employee makes a request for flexibility, be supportive. Just telling your employee that you support his or her need for flexibility is a huge move – even if you are unable to accommodate their request. For the employee, making the request was a major event. Just think about when you might have decided to make a change and the support of others determined how you felt about succeeding. Be careful not to make a value judgment about the request but consider only if it is doable given the workflow that needs to be accomplished. Whether or not you can grant the request, it is important to demonstrate your support of your employee’s mutual responsibilities and personal life.

  • Think it through to come up with a plan together. If the employee request can be accommodated, sit down together to develop a business plan with specifics about how it will work. Recognize that each situation is unique and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. Carefully consider how you will be able to manage and supervise the employee and monitor their workflow. The plan needs to clearly define expectations and set out how performance will be measured. Start small and set short-term objectives to review how things are going in three months, six months, etc. in order to be sure the flexible arrangement is working.

  • Be open and honest with employees. Keep your employees in the loop and let them know that you’re working to help them get the flexibility they need. If you as a manager get a negative reaction from HR, let the employees know what the objections were. Get them involved in coming up with solutions. In bringing a specific employee request and plan to HR, it is important to understand the organization culture, history and precedent with flex time. Talk informally to other managers to find out what they have tried and what works.

  • Be Disciplined. Once an employee’s request is granted, make sure the parameters of the flexible work plan are well documented. This will help to make sure your decision is fair and consistent. It also is very important for managers to keep good records during the initial trial period and throughout the flexible arrangement to evaluate performance against the measurements established in the business plan. Doing so will protect the organization and you as the manager. Also, it will serve as a guide in considering flexible work requests in the future.

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The need to incorporate flexibility into how we work and where we work is a reality that is here to stay. Managers need to accept and embrace this reality as a way to retain valued workers and recruit new employees. In our work with organizations in both the public and private sectors, Edizen helps managers to learn the skills and develop the capabilities necessary to effectively introduce flexible work arrangements into traditional workplaces.

EDIZEN Insights #20
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