3 Signs Flexible Work Is Strategic—And Not Just Window Dressing

Research shows that a majority of employers offer at least some type of informal, day-to-day and formal work flexibility, and a majority of employees agree that they have access to it.  

Therefore, the question is no longer simply, "What is telework, flexible hours, etc.?" We get the concept. The focus must now shift to "How do we use work flexibility strategically and deliberately to achieve our unique business and personal goals?" 

Unfortunately, too often the flexible work that exists is either random with no clear, coordinated, widely understood goal behind it. Or it's a program or policy that sounds and feels good but hasn't infiltrated its way into the day-to-day business.  

So how do you tell if an organization's approach to work flexibility is deliberate, strategic and targeted, or if it's random, window dressing? Here are three signs:

Sign #1: When a business challenge or opportunity appears, managers naturally ask themselves, "How can we address this by being more flexible in how, when and where work is done?" And then they understand how to pull the team together to make that flexible work solution succeed. For example:

  • The group is covering clients across all time zones and is burning out; therefore, "How can we be more flexible with our work hours so that if you are on a call with Asia or Europe overnight, you don't have to be at your desk by 9 a.m. the next day?"
  • Business is down and we are getting pressure to cut head count; therefore, "How can I reduce schedules to save labor costs and the valuable talent we'll need when the business turns around?"
  • An employee has to care for his mother who lives in another state and was recently diagnosed with dementia; therefore, "What if we let him telework so he doesn't have to quit?"
  • There may be a new business opportunity in a market but there isn't enough revenue to justify renting an office; therefore, "We can have the initial start up team telework from their homes until revenue grows?"

Sign #2: The organization consistently connects the dots between all of the tactical, siloed applications of work flexibility. Recently, we worked with a client that was restructuring its office space. Like many organizations, they'd committed to an open-floor office plan where people have a laptop and plug in to any space they can find when they arrive at work.  

At the same time, the technology group was rolling out teleconferencing capability companywide. It allowed employees to talk face-to-face with anyone in the organization. Because many people at the company had long commutes and needed periods of uninterrupted focus to get their jobs done, greater use of telework began to look like a good option to managers and employees, but senior leaders weren't onboard.  

Everyone was confused: If we're not guaranteed a desk near our team/manager when we arrive at work, if we have the ability to teleconference anytime, if we have long time-wasting commutes and if we need to get focused work done, why can't we work remotely when we need to? Good question, but no one had a good answer--because they hadn't connected all of the dots.  

Sign #3: Employees understand how to capture the day-to-day flexibility they may have to manage their everyday work+life fit. They know how to create, negotiate, and implement a plan that formally changes the way they work when they experience a major life transition, e.g. eldercare, parenthood, partner relocation, continuing education, or semi-retirement. And they are trained how to do it in a way that works for them and the business.

In most organizations, employees have no idea how to do either. As a result, the productivity and retention capability of flexible work is underutilized.    

What about work flexibility in your organization? Is it strategic, targeted, and deliberate? Or random, without direction and focus, or feel-good, sound-good window dressing? Use the ideas above to make it the former.   

Cali Williams Yost is the CEO and Founder of the Flex+Strategy Group / Work+Life Fit, Inc., flexible work and life strategy advisors to clients including BDO USA, Pearson, Inc., EMC, the U.S. Navy, and Novo Nordisk. Her second work+life fit book, Tweak It: Small Changes, Big Impact--Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day, will be published by Center Street/Hachette in January, 2013. Connect with Cali at her Work+Life Fit blog and on Twitter @caliyost.

[Image: Flickr user Swamibu]

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  • Allison O'Kelly

    Cali, great article. Incorporating work/life and flexibility programs into business strategy is the next step for smart organizations. Like anything else, it has to be managed and executed well to be beneficial. Employees don’t just “get” work options, it needs to fit into the organizational structure appropriately. As we continue to evolve as a workforce, the companies that don't view flexibility holistically will not be able to take full advantage of the benefits in engagement, retainment and overall organizational health it offers. --Allison O'Kelly, founder/CEO Mom Corps