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.

Thu, June 05, 2008

CIO — 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.

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.

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