5 Lessons from CFOs: How to Make Work Life Flexibility a Biz Strategy, Not Perk/Benefit

We know that the HR community recognizes the importance of work+life flexibility, but what about the people who drive the financial decisions, and write the checks.  Is work+life flexibility on the radar screen of CFOs?  Is it a core strategic lever for responding rapidly to unexpected economic challenges, and for addressing future trends well in advance?  If not, why and how can that change? 

To answer these questions, Work+Life Fit, Inc. partnered with BDO Seidman LLP to co-sponsor the first ever CFO Perspectives on Work-Life Flexibility study.  This national telephone survey of a random sample of 100 top CFOs at companies with at least 5,000 employees was conducted by an independent research firm in May, 2008.  I'm so pleased that the peer reviewed World at Work Journal chose to publish the article I wrote about the results and their implications entitled, "CFOs See Business Impacts of Work-Life Flexibility, But They Can't Execute for Strategic Benefit," in the most recent issue. 

The publication of the article and the important insights the CFOs offered couldn't come at a better time.  Eighteen months ago global corporate line leadership had a chance to use a broad range of work+life flexibility strategies to respond to the brewing economic crisis, and for the most part they didn't.  Early on, they missed the opportunity to consider how they could reduce costs and sustain revenue by being more flexible in where, when and how the business and employees operated.  Specifically, they overlooked how to use a combination of flexible scheduling, compressed workweeks, furloughs, sabbaticals, telecommuting, reduced schedules, and job sharing to help employees become more productive, reduce labor costs while minimizing layoffs, cut real estate overhead, lower operating expenses, as well as improve and expand customer service.  This was a costly and unnecessary oversight that we can't afford to repeat.   

The key findings from the CFO survey outlined in the World at Work Journal article offer guidance into what we can leverage and do differently to make work+life flexibility a more integral part of both the short-term and long-term decision-making process:

  • Good news: they get it!:  CFOs recognize the broad, potential business impacts of work+life flexibility, or flexibility in how, when and where work is done.
  • Bad news: most can't do much about it because of a lack of formal flexibility policies/procedures and leadership buy-in: Only 13 out of the 100 CFOs report working for an organization with a formal approach to flexibility in place and with a leadership team that sees work+life flexibility as a strategy for managing talent, workflow and resources.   The remaining CFOs either work for organizations without a formal approach to flexibility and/or have a leadership team that considers flexibility to be an perk/benefit.  Both factors seriously limit the CFOs ability to use work+life flexibility as a lever to execute a rapid response to a business challenge.

We need to do a better job:

  • "Brand" work+life flexibility upfront as a business strategy for managing talent, resources and workflow within the culture and the day-to-day operating model.
  • Involve business line leaders in the development and implementation of formal work+life flexibility strategy from the beginning.  HR can't be the sole champion.  For broad buy-in and understanding, a work+life flexibility strategy  must be developed for the business, by the business with HR as a key partner in the process.
  • Implement work+life flexibility more effectively, to overcome organizational and personal obstacles that stand in the way.

Work+life flexibility needs to be one of the strategic levers that all leaders pull out of their back pocket to manage short-term crises and long-term trends.  As the recovery simmers, flexible alternatives to labor cost savings can limit additional layoffs.  Some experts predict that oil prices will rise substantially as an economy begins to improve.  In both cases, strategic work+life flexibility can be part of the solution. 

The recent swine flu epidemic wasn't as disruptive as predicted, but what about the next time?  We'll need work+life flexibility.  Then there's the aging population.  We know it's happening, let's start planning.  How can companies retain retiree talent, attract younger employees, and deal with potentially overwhelming eldercare issues?  Flexibility.  Environmental sustainability may have taken a back seat in the economic crisis, but the need to change how we fundamentally operate remains unchanged.  The answer in part: work+life flexibility. 

Let's hope the wisdom and experience shared by the CFOs makes flexibility in how, when and where work is done a part of the solution. 

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1 Comments

  • R. Boschen

    I am so pleased to have read this article. It seems so painfully obvious for "fixing" current economic and environmental issues or avoiding them all together, but we can't seem to get the foundation laid to build work+life flexibility into our corporate structure as a business strategy versus a benefit. I hope that this will catch on.