MIAMI — When I had my first two kids a year apart, it became challenging to keep up with the deadlines and long hours that the news business required. After a few days of not seeing my little ones before they went to bed, I considered quitting. Instead, I asked my manager for a reduced schedule.
That was the original definition of flexibility, an accommodation for a working mom. Fifteen years later, the conversation has changed. Today, flexibility is about the bottom line, a solution to a business challenge.
"Today, companies are using flexibility to help drive business results," said Ellen Galinsky, president of Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit that conducts research on the changing work force. "There is no one kind of flexibility that's right for all. The solution has to fit the problem."
Of course, some businesses brush aside workplace concerns in the midst of an economic recession and are focused only on making the next sales target. But the changing work force makes ignoring flexibility as a solution difficult for others to ignore: Employees are struggling with elder care issues, unsustainable long work hours, a desire to phase into retirement, or conflicts that arise when both parents work.
When Bon Secours, with 20,000 employees, realized its work force of experienced nurses was aging, it introduced scheduling options for those transitioning into retirement. For example, they can retire at 65 and work part time while collecting a pension.
In Michigan, Menlo Innovations wanted to attract and keep top talent in a highly competitive field. The 15-person software design firm pairs its workers on shared computers and switches the pairs regularly. The cross training makes it possible for no time off request to be denied. Even more, it keeps its employees to a 40-hour workweek, "a sustainable pace," with no one working weekends or evenings to prevent burn out.
Making flexibility work
How to approach workplace flexibility
• The solution has to fit the problem, and it has to work for both employee and employer.
• It's not just about initiatives; it's about creating a culture of flexibility.
• Be clear about measurements for success.
• Involve top and middle managers.
• Start small; try piloting a program before launching full-scale.
• Develop checkpoints to assess results and improve or make adjustments as necessary.
• Recognize and reward managers who use flexibility effectively.
How companies use flexibility
• Partially paid summer sabbaticals at accounting firm Margolin, Winer and Evens in Garden City, N.Y., help control labor costs during the summer slowdown.
• Rotating compressed workweeks for administrative staff at BDO USA in 29 U.S. locations has cut overtime and operational costs while extending administrative coverage.
• Cisco's "Off/On Ramp," enables employees at the San Jose, Calif., work site to take a 12- to 24-month unpaid break from their career, while maintaining benefits for the first year.
Source: Families and Work Institute and Society of Human Resource Management