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3 Dangers of Making “Recruitment and Retention” the Only Reason for Workplace Flexibility

From what I’m seeing, we’ve turned a corner in the job market. Firms are publicly stating their intention to hire. And, the “Look, people are just lucky to have jobs,” mantra of the last two years has given way quickly to “We need to offer workplace flexibility so we can attract and retain our people.” This is great news for me, but it’s dangerous for employers.

From what I’m seeing, we’ve turned a corner in the job market. Firms are publicly stating their intention to hire. And, the “Look, people are just lucky to have jobs,” mantra of the last two years has given way quickly to “We need to offer workplace flexibility so we can attract and retain our people.” This is great news for me, but it’s dangerous for employers.

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It’s great news for me because it is true and it’s the easiest sell for our expertise. A mountain of research has proven over and over again that people choose and stay with employers, in part, because of flexibility. Employers are all ears when we explain how we can help solve that problem. It’s the reason retention and recruitment drove the growth of flexibility in the 90’s and 00’s.

Falling back on this familiar “why” for flexibility could be dangerous for organizations. As we saw at the height of the economic downturn, flexibility based solely on the recruitment and retention rationale had shallow roots. It couldn’t hold against the strong winds of the recession. In many organizations, flexibility disappeared perhaps not in name, but in practice because, “Look, people are just lucky to have jobs.”

Let’s not repeat the mistakes of the past.

Let’s use this resurgent focus on the importance of flexibility to create a stronger root system that runs deeper into the culture and the day-to-day operating model.

We need to go beyond recruitment and retention, because if we don’t:

People won’t trust that flexibility is real and safe to use. Flexibility is not a red carpet you can roll out in good times and roll back in at the first signs of trouble. You get one, maybe two, shots at promoting greater flexibility in your workplace. Initially, people will trust you and try it. But they’ll be watching. If flexibility is perceived to not work as promised, hurts someone’s career, or becomes a flavor of the month, it will be very hard to get buy-in the next time. That doesn’t mean flexibility shouldn’t adapt to changing realities. It just can’t disappear.

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Flexibility will remain a tactical benefit with an important, but limited, impact. In far too many organizations, both leaders and employees still believe that formal flexible work arrangements are a nice-to-have benefit. They look good on the recruiting brochure and they are a helpful, tactical response when someone you want to keep threatens to leave. Strategic flexibility in the way work is done and life is managed is so much more, but it can’t be based solely on recruitment and retention or …

Employers leave money on the table and miss out on profit and growth opportunities from the other applications of flexibility that hold in good times and bad. Combine these other impacts with recruitment and retention and you create the deeper, stronger root system that allows flexibility to thrive boom or bust. These other impacts include (but is not limited to):

  • Productivity and Engagement: People are able to get more done with less if they have the day-to-day and more structured, formal flexibility to work and manage the other parts of their lives. Companies leave money on the table, especially in a tough economy, when they don’t make flexibility real and meaningful. (For an interesting related commentary checkout Jason Fried’s “Why Work Doesn’t Happen at Work” Ted talk).
  • Business contingency planning: You can stay open for business when it snows or there’s a flu epidemic because people can work from home.
  • Health care and absenteeism cost savings: Giving people day-to-day flexibility in how, when and where they work to do their jobs and take care of themselves physically and emotionally. This is even more important (not less) in a tough economy when people are being asked to do more with less.
  • Real estate cost savings: Depending upon your business and the type of work your people do, you can reduce the need for office space with a combination of flexible scheduling and telework.
  • Sourcing and servicing global clients with minimal burnout. Very few companies operate only in their time zone, and many are trying to win business in other countries. Unfortunately what’s happening is the traditional 9-to-5, Monday-Friday mentality hasn’t adapted. People are not only working their “normal” hours but are covering other time zones as well. They are burning out. The solution is the flexible coordination of coverage schedules and having the ability to work from home.

I could go on and on but I won’t. I will simply say, let’s push ourselves not to fall back on a familiar business case for flexibility that’s easy for all of us to get our arms around. Recruitment and retention is very important but it’s not enough to create a flexibility strategy with a root system that can hold in an economic downturn. Flexibility in the way we work and manage our lives is a powerful lever for profit and growth boom or bust, but it needs to be positioned that way from the beginning.

How can we leverage the resurgent “recruitment and retention” business case for flexibility to create an even stronger, deeper root system that will hold in any economic reality?

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