3 Business Truths That Give Work+Life Flex Credibility in Today's Economic Reality

Maybe it’s the seven years I spent as a banker in New York City working with business owners before b-school, but I believe that the only way to drive real and meaningful change related to work+life fit and flexibility is to consider the realities of the business.

That’s not always easy when you believe passionately that a new approach is the right thing to do to help people. Sometimes it’s hard to know and address business conditions. At a human level, it shouldn’t be necessary.

House built on sand vs. an earthquake-proof building

Unfortunately, when you don’t make the case for work+life flexibility based on business realities, it’s like a house built on sand. The first storm, it’s gone. Perhaps not in name, but in practice. When business considerations are part of the process, however, it’s like an earthquake resistant building. As the tremors hit, the building moves and shifts, but continues to stand.

I’ve been thinking about this recently for a couple of reasons…

First, I’ve been following the issue of work+life supports for hourly workers. And, while the business benefits have been part of the discussion, more often than not the focus is on the needs of the individuals. This is wonderful (and right), but again, from my experience unless the realities of the businesses that employ low wage workers are front and center (eg. low margins and an excess of cheap labor domestically and abroad available to do the work) you may get compliance but not real buy-in and change.

Second, I just spent the weekend at my business school reunion. The two days convinced me that, more than ever, work+life flexibility is a strategic imperative if individuals and organizations are going to tackle 21st Century challenges and opportunities. However, I’m also equally convinced that the ability to make the case based on “the right thing to do” is over. As a senior Fortune 500 HR executive who shared a panel with me said, “We went from too much capital and not enough workers, to too many workers and not enough capital. And that is going to continue for some time.”

Therefore, for work+life flexibility to have credibility with leaders today, the following business realities need to be in the forefront:

Truth #1: Businesses are operating in a highly competitive, global economic reality of “less capital, and too many workers.” As I said above, this makes the business and personal impacts of strategic flexibility even more important in terms of innovation, working better and smarter, servicing global clients, controlling costs, helping employees bring the best of themselves to work every day, etc. However, many senior leaders believe that “It’s a mommy track perk that we can no longer afford. People are just lucky to have jobs.” By acknowledging the competitive reality of today’s environment and positioning flexibility as a solution, we can move beyond the resistance. But we need to acknowledge it.

Truth #2: Sometimes the answer to a request for flexibility is going to be “no,” and that needs to be okay. There’s less margin for error and inefficiency as everyone is doing more with less. As a result:

· If personal and/or business realities change, the flexibility that worked six months ago will have to adapt.

· If too many people want the same type of flexibility and it doesn’t work for the business, then the group needs to figure out what will work.

· If you can’t be trusted to do your job with flexibility, it’s going to be discontinued or you aren’t going to get it, and

· If you present a plan for flexibility that doesn’t work for your job, then “no.”

Truth #3: Be flexible with your flexibility. TheMamaBee.com recently wrote a great post about how many people don’t necessarily need formal work+life supports if managers planned and coordinated work more effectively. As I noted in the comments, I couldn’t agree more.

Fire drills are often unnecessary and can be reduced dramatically with better communication and a clearer definition of what customer service really means inside of a culture. An immediate, unquestioning “yes,” to all client and senior leader requests doesn’t equal good service and it wreaks havoc on the work+life fit reality of individuals.

As much as you plan, the unexpected still happens. Therefore, be flexible with flexibility, even if you’re scheduled to work particular hours or telecommute specific days. If an important meeting is called at the last minute or a project has to be finished outside of your flex hours or days, you need to do your fair share of stepping to the plate. Everyone is being asked to do more in every company, so the argument, “But that’s not my schedule,” doesn’t have credibility.

Of course, the question becomes, when is some flexibility, too much? Regardless, the rigid adherence to a schedule is not going to fly in this environment.

For work+life flexibility to become part of an organization’s operating model, conversations with every senior business leader must present a case that acknowledges the following three truths:

1) Businesses are operating in a highly competitive, global economic reality of “less capital, and too many workers.”

2) Sometimes the answer to a request for flexibility is going to be “no,” and that needs to be okay, and

3) Be flexible with your flexibility.

What do you think? Do you agree that business realities need to be acknowledged for work+life flexibility to have credibility? Did I miss any?

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2 Comments

  • Michael Leiter

    Cali
    Thanks for this well considered article. You write with feeling and it's appreciated.
    Your third point is esp relevant for me. I see reciprocity as a core element to any sustainable relationships. In the ongoing relationship of people with their employer, it's important for flexibility to be answered with flexibility. If not, one side will experience injustice and that experience will drive them apart.
    All the best
    Michael
    www.workengagement.com

  • Maryanne Perrin

    Completely agree, Cali! Perhaps it's the MBA in me, but I can't see this issue really moving forward if it is framed as primarily a benefit for the employee (I think that is a big problem with why "work life balance" programs have not moved this issue further along). Business realities must be acknowledged and business benefits must be touted so that all parties see the value of embracing more flexibility. Thanks for your clear and insightful voice on these issues!