What’s the most important thing you can provide your IT workforce? If your answer involved “competitive salary” and “comprehensive benefits,” that’s understandable — but you’d be wrong. Sure, those elements are on any employees’ list of must-haves, but what they want most is flexibility. In fact, 2016 was a watershed year for workplace flexibility, as workplace flexibility became a more desired employee benefit than healthcare for millennials and “Gen Z,” according to a survey from Future Workplace and Randstad U.S.A.
What does all this mean for organizations trying to lure and retain talent, especially from the younger generations? It’s not about flashy perks, or billion-dollar campuses; it’s about flexibility and the ability to hone communication skills, foster growth and career development, says Dan Schawbel, research director at Future Workplace, an HR executive network and research firm, and author of Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success and Me 2.0: 4 Steps to Building Your Future.
“What all this really tells us is that … millennials and Gen Z are very focused on how to make the workplace better for everyone, regardless of age. The workplace should be flexible and tech-enabled, and should accommodate and embrace all sorts of people, personalities and work styles,” Schawbel says.
For hiring and retention, workplace flexibility is key
Two factors are driving the increased need for workplace flexibility, says Kate Donovan, senior vice president of ManpowerGroup Solutions and global RPO president at ManpowerGroup: digital transformation and the millennial and Generation Z generations.
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Millennials now make up the largest demographic in the global workforce, and, as digital natives, have helped facilitate a major shift in the way we think about work — it’s less of a destination and more of a state of mind, Donovan says.
“Technical evolution has really accelerated this. Collaboration, messaging, all these different solutions mean that work can be done from anywhere, anytime. And while it started with the younger generation, it really benefits everyone. Organizations have to understand that this is a requirement now if they want to win the war for the best talent. Because as people experience flexibility in their jobs, they’re refusing to go back to how it used to be,” Donovan says.
A recent ManpowerGroup Solutions survey, Work, for Me: Understanding Candidate Demand for Flexibility, surveyed approximately 14,000 job seekers, aged 18 to 65 from nineteen countries and revealed that 63 percent didn’t feel they needed to be sitting at their desk to get their work done. The research also revealed a steady increase in the number of job seekers who listed flexibility as one of their top three most important criteria for selecting a new job — in the U.S., 45 percent of respondents say flexibility is one of the key motivating factors when considering a job change, according to the survey.
Impact on diversity
Workplace flexibility can even have a positive impact on workplace diversity by allowing more working parents — especially working mothers — to stay in the workforce or rejoin after having a child. Fast Company profiles emerging startup Werk, but there are a number of startups and recruiting platforms cropping up to address the need for greater flexibility. Werk, PowerToFly and the MomSource Network are just three that are matching employers who offer flexibility with job-seekers who are looking for the same.
Workplace flexibility also allows organizations to recruit and hire from outside their physical geography, and thus access a wider and deeper pool of tech talent, says Dennis Collins, senior director of marketing at West Unified Communications Services, which develops unified communications technology to facilitate greater workplace flexibility
“You can increase your talent pool, because great talent doesn’t just live in one or two specific areas. You can increase your business through sales if you have sales talent in a variety of regions. There’s also benefits specific to remote work, in that you’re reducing your overhead. You’re not paying for square footage, commuting costs, all of those administrative and on-premises infrastructure costs if you’re facilitating remote work. Sure, people need a laptop or other tools, but that becomes a fixed cost,” he says.
Shifting to a more flexible workplace strategy doesn’t have to happen overnight, and it doesn’t have to be complicated, says Collins. Organizations can start by easing into flexibility a little at a time, where it makes the most sense, and then see how it goes before jumping in with both feet, Collins says.
“We look at flexibility as needing flexibility in and of itself; it’s not binary — all on or all off. There are times — like at the beginning of a project, a major kickoff of a new initiative; celebrating finishing a big project, that kind of thing — where you need to be together for that collaborative, synergistic energy, but then you can taper it off. You can have touchpoint meetings; telepresence, or through conference calls, collaboration tools like Slack, Yammer, all of these technologies like ours mean the entrenched habits of forcing people to be in a seat isn’t necessary. It’s about outcomes, not output or time spent,” Collins says.
Be flexible about being flexible
Workplace flexibility can also take different forms based on the unique structure and needs of your organization and of your individual workers, says Anne Donovan, people innovation leader at PricewaterhouseCoopers. PwC’s journey toward a more flexible work environment began seven years ago with conversations about how to help people better integrate work and life.
“First of all, when we talk about flexibility, we’re not talking about working less. We’re talking about an everyday thing; working in and around people’s lives and how to make that easier and make work much more sustainable. People don’t want to put their lives on hold for work, or their work on hold for their lives — it all starts running together, so if we can manage this effectively, it’s better for our company, and for our people,” she says.
PwC started introducing more flexibility by relaxing its dress code over one summer, and gradually added more elements like flexible start and departure times, flexible schedules and remote work, says Donovan, and continues evaluating other options as trust is built.
“We started this in the summer, because it’s easier to do when people are already working differently. It started as ‘you can wear khakis or more casual attire on Fridays,’ and then became ‘Flex Fridays’ in the summer. And it’s a journey, one that’s build on trust. Trust that your employees can get done what they need to without these arbitrary constraints of time and location. We still work really, really hard, but no one has time to be micromanaged! If you think your workforce needs you looking over their shoulders to get things done, you have a far more serious problem,” she says.
Different strokes for different folks
What are some other manifestations of flexibility? There are a number of forms it can take, says ManpowerGroup’s Kate Donovan.
“Flexibility goes well beyond just having flexible start and departure times, though those are factors. In our survey, we’ve also seen organizations that measure performance based on outcomes; companies offering unlimited PTO and/or vacation time; the opportunity to take sabbaticals or extended leave over the course of their career; seasonal flexibility for industries like retail where demand shifts,” Donovan says. Other ways to incorporate flexibility include the ability to work from home and, for working parents, the ability to work ‘split shifts,’ she says.
“A lot of working parents we’ve seen have had great success with a ‘split shift,’ where they’ll work for the time their children are in school, and then log back in for a few more hours later at night once their kids are in bed. They get that critical chunk of time in the middle of the day to be there for their family,” she says.
In a very real war for talent, flexibility is the key lever, and keeping that talent engaged, motivated and loyal to your organization is the driving force behind many organizations’ push for flexibility, says Donovan. It’s certainly worked for PwC.
“We’ve been doing this for seven years now, and we have the highest internal satisfaction, motivation and engagement scores we’ve ever had. You can’t change things overnight, but you can start these small changes and eventually get to where you want to be — it’s a journey. And, you know, the saying goes that ‘a journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step,’” she says.