Flexible Workplace: Lots of Talk, Little Action

Who's afraid of the flexible workplace? Too many enterprises: Employers are missing opportunities to harness the business value associated with workplace flexibility for employees, says expert Karol Rose.

In spite of gas prices now topping $4 per gallon, employers are slow to offer employees the opportunity to telecommute to offset rising transportation costs. According to a recent survey conducted by staffing firm Robert Half International, only 11 percent of companies surveyed are letting employees work from home as a way to help them curb their commuting costs.

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In fact, telecommuting remains such a scary concept to employers that they're more inclined to increase mileage reimbursements than—heaven forbid—let employees work from home, according to the Half survey.

That's a strategic mistake, says Karol Rose, a long-time expert on workplace flexibility. Employers stand to gain several advantages, Rose says, by granting employees more control over where, when and how they work, through formal and informal flexible work arrangements. These may include telecommuting, job sharing and compressed schedules (e.g. four day work weeks.) Rose has authored five books on flexible work practices and has spent 25 years advising Fortune 500 companies on flexibility. She now serves as CMO of FlexPaths, which has developed a web-based portal that employers can use to develop and manage a strategy and policies for flexibility.

Rose says flexible work practices attract and retain talent in an age when organizational value is tied up in employees' minds. Nearly one-third of employees surveyed by Robert Half (30 percent) noted that they're looking for new jobs closer to home to reduce their commuting costs.

A flexible workplace also improves employees' productivity and can reduce organizations' facilities costs, she adds. CIO.com spoke with Rose about the state of workplace flexibility efforts, the reasons why so many employers remain resistant, and what approach to flexibility breeds success.

CIO: There's a lot of talk about flexible work arrangements and workplace flexibility these days, but is there an equal amount of action from employers? Are employers actively implementing flexible work arrangements?

Karol Rose: There is a lot of talk, but the activity has not met the rhetoric. Many companies have had to address the issue of flexibility in some way. It's often bubbled up because a very desired employee says, 'I've had it. I can't work this way anymore,' and the company realizes it needs a policy to manage flexibility in the workplace to retain talent. But these companies aren't using flexibility as a strategic tool, to achieve business results. They've generally approached flexibility as a one-off situation to accommodate individual employees and very programmatically. In other words, they've put in place formal arrangements that require some kind of written agreement between manager and employee, and they rely on that as their whole approach to flexibility.

What's wrong with that?

We've created a way to manage flexibility that is inflexible. It's an oxymoron. It's also not working as well as it could because it's reactive and one-off. Companies that take a formal approach to flexibility are missing out on the real potential of flexibility and opportunities to take a broader, more strategic and more inclusive approach to it. Formal flexibility arrangements are just one leg of a three-legged stool. The other legs are informal flexibility and career flexibility.

How do you define formal, informal and career flexibility?

Formal flexibility typically has to do with an ongoing arrangement. For example, if you telecommute on a regular basis, three days a week, that's set up as a formal flexible work arrangement. But if you work at home one day because you have a plumber coming to your house, that's informal flexibility. There's no process with informal flexibility. It's based on respect and trust that you'll get your work done. Career flexibility means employees can divert from standard, linear career paths. Flexible career models allow for interruptions and detours without derailment.

Why aren't employers offering their employees more in the way of flexibility?

There are a number of reasons. One is that companies don't really understand the value of flexibility, what it can bring to the business. We know intuitively that flexibility can be valuable to individuals and organizations, but we haven't been able to articulate that message effectively.

The talent has not understood that flexibility is a business tool. It should also meet personal needs, but the talent has to approach flexibility as a business solution. If employees don't speak about flexibility in a way that makes sense for the business, they're not going to get it.

The messages about flexibility in the media haven't helped organizations get comfortable with the idea, either. The messages you see in ads are the employee taking an important client call while on the beach with their three kids. That's not an effective business message. It may sell a laptop, but it's not going to make management more comfortable with the whole concept of flexibility.

The other challenge is the fragmentation that exists in organizations. Flexibility touches so many stakeholders, yet who owns it? Should it be someone in HR? Organizations and HR functions are very siloed. Someone in recruiting may realize the need for flexibility in order to attract talent, but that message hasn't gotten across to the people who manage benefits. The siloed structure of organizations is a major inhibitor.

Do you think companies have resorted to formal flexibility policies and arrangements as a way to get their arms around it?

I think you're right. It's easier to put out a guideline about how an employee will work from home than to think more strategically and proactively about a broader approach to flexibility.

How can companies overcome the barriers to implementing formal and informal flexibility?

They need tools and resources to communicate the value of flexibility across the organization. They need ROI calculators and data on what works and what doesn't. They need to be able to connect the dots to see how flexibility can work across their organizations.

They also need to address their assumptions about productivity and work. These assumptions guide their thought processes about flexibility and the way they treat people in the workplace, but they're no longer valid. We still use very much of an industrial model to manage people. We assume, If I can see you, you must be working. That's a belief held by lots of people. But we have to understand that work gets done differently today and that the nature of the work we do is different. Today, organizational value is in the brains of employees. To think that we can legislate that value or control it just because the employee is physically present is a myth.

We know from research that the trust and respect that's required to get the best discretionary effort from human capital doesn't necessarily require that managers see them. The value of human capital gets maximized when it is allowed to function—wherever that may be. If we don't use some educational process to address those assumptions and to show that they're not valid in today's environment, flexibility will continue to be caught between a rock and a hard place.

How are progressive companies addressing these issues?

I know one organization that created a simulation. This organization was going to have a group working from home. They took a section of a floor of the office and set it up to look like a home office. The people who were going to be telecommuting worked in this simulated home office environment before they actually started working from home so that they and their managers could proactively work through the issues that come up, like my internet connection doesn't work; my house is stocked with food and I'm gaining weight; and I no longer have a barrier between work and home so I'm working all night.

The simulation prepared everyone. It allowed them to get comfortable with the new arrangement and surfaced concerns. They knew what their personal and business challenges were going to be and they got coaching on how to deal with them.

If a CIO wants to lead the discussion about workplace flexibility at her company, how can she go about getting the discussion started and involving all the necessary stakeholders? What steps should she take

Number one is educate yourself. Find out what your company already does. Most likely it already offers some flexibility. Learn about formal, informal and career flexibility. Check out the competition. Look for the business case for flexibility, which is a low-cost and highly effective business solution. Find the "burning platform" for your company. Is it business continuity in an emergency? Is it getting and/or keeping the best talent? Has the work become more complex? Is your business operating in multiple time zones? Is it that the competition is getting external visibility and awards as a great place to work? Maybe your board or investors are looking for a more effective, productive company. There's always a business reason for flexibility.

Next, develop an ROI. Estimate the savings of lower turnover. You can do this by taking the number of employees who left last year whom the company would have liked to retain and multiply that number by the average annual salary of these employees plus their benefits. (Estimates for salaried employees equals 100 percent of their annual salaries; for hourly workers, take 75 percent of their annual salary.) You'll probably get a pretty big number. Then, even though flexibility is not very costly, cut the number in half. Your message to the organization can be, 'Let's try to increase the organization's flexibility and see what happens. What have we got to lose?'

Here's another example: A mid-cap company with 14,000 employees would eliminate $3.5 million in facilities costs and gain 17,000 carbon credits if five percent of its employees telecommuted. And that doesn't even factor in the increase in discretionary work time.

Third, make a plan. Look for other possible influencers in the organization who might join in planning and presenting your plan to key decision makers.

Next, pilot the plan. If you can't get the whole organization to embrace flexibility, try a portion. You can even pilot in your own organization. It's a great way to work out the kinks and learn what will work best.

Finally, communicate. Share best practices, challenges, and ask everyone for input. Customize your messaging around flexibility for HR stakeholders, executives, managers and employees. Don't forget to go back to key influencers and decision-makers not just with quantitative data, but also qualitative data (stories) which are often even more compelling for leaders to hear.

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