This is the first post in a new series that I’m calling “Flex and the C-Suite.” Periodically, I will interview C-Suite leaders who have made flexibility in the way work is done a key strategy for achieving business results smarter and better. In other words, they get it.
I’m kicking off the series with John C. Parry, the President and CEO of Solix, Inc. I had an opportunity to get to know Parry and his Senior Manager of External Communications, Gene King, when we rode back to New Jersey from Washington D.C. on the Acela late last year.
Parry had just presented at the Workplace Flexibility 2010 celebration that I’d attended. I was struck by the clarity with which he described the key role flexibility plays in achieving the core objective of his business which is excellent client service. I think you will be too.
First, here’s some of background about Solix, Inc. and its business. Solix is a New Jersey-based provider of comprehensive outsourcing solutions for government and commercial clients. It manages public benefit programs ranging from providing funding for Internet access for schools, libraries and rural health care facilities to qualifying low-income consumers for discounted phone service. Commercial clients work with Solix to enhance customer relationship management and to effectively satisfy regulatory program requirements.
Cali Yost: Let’s begin with the top challenges and opportunities that you see facing Solix and Corporate America over the next year or two?
John C. Parry: For most CEOs, the challenge is how to grow their companies profitably. Keeping current customers happy, while expanding into a larger, more complex organization and making sure that new revenue is profitable. Too many companies are trying to maintain profitability by trimming their workforce. We are doing it both ways–we’re becoming more efficient as we grow.
The benefit of this approach is that we give more opportunity to our current workforce. This allows us to keep the bright young people who work for us motivated because we are growing and changing as a company which creates more career opportunity.
In your opinion, how does flexibility in the way work is done help Solix, Inc. address those challenges or seize those opportunities?
To me, workplace flexibility is one of the ways to remove “the noise in the system” so that employees can focus on the business at hand which is providing the best service to our customers, both new and old. That noise in the system can be anything from the fear of losing your job, the unproductive rumor mill or worries related to family issues. Providing a great work environment allows people to focus on the clients. We do this a few ways.
First, we remove the noise from the system. How do you do this? First, communicate, communicate, and communicate. We have an “Ask John” program where people are encouraged to anonymously send any questions or concerns they may have to me directly. I will answer within 24 hours.
Next, we don’t want people to worry that it’s a black mark if they miss a day of work because of a family issue. In our culture, all we really care about is the excellent service of our clients. We don’t care how you structure your hours as long as you’re providing that service. If you are sick, don’t come in. If it snows and you want to work from home, fine. You make the decision. This eliminates a lot of workplace stress that, again, is unproductive noise in the system.
We let people compress their workweek, telework and flex their hours. We’ve supported phased retirements and even let people take longer chunks of time off to visit family overseas. The reality is that it takes a year to train someone. Why wouldn’t we take them back after a three month break to visit their family in India? In fact, we would let people work from home more, but they like coming in to work.
Second, we give people meaningful work to do. The work we do reaches all corners of the country to help people and that feels good. For example, a small school in Pahoa, Hawaii where less than 25% of the students have Internet access at home was able to upgrade its computer lab and a rural health care provider in the Aleutian Islands of Alaska has improved their Internet and telecom infrastructure to better serve their customers in this remote area. In addition, the work we do helps low income citizens gain access to subsidized cell phone service. We value that.
Third, we promote the team concept. I spent most of my career in the Bell System. Because we had no external competition for many years, they promoted internal competition which wasn’t particularly positive. From this experience, I am a big proponent of teams. Individuals are important but we celebrate and recognize team success, and people really support each other
Finally, we encourage community involvement, and good citizenship. Our employees often work in the soup kitchen as a team or raise money for charities about which they are passionate.
What factors have been most critical to the successful implementation of flexibility at Solix?
To any leader who thinks creating a supportive, flexible work culture is a boondoggle, I’d suggest starting with a trial run. Use work that can be done from home and with low supervision. See the results.
Ask for input from all levels. What’s making the work environment stressful? Trying to raise a family and punch a time clock?
Prepare supervisors and employees to succeed in a flexible work culture. Pick managers who have already bought into it to take the lead because there will be a lot of skepticism. At some point, everyone will realize that there’s been no reduction in quality or productivity because of flexibility and that they, as managers, get to have flexibility too!
Now everyone gets to set his or her hours. For example, I am an early person so I get in to the office very early in the morning but like to leave here by 4:00 pm most days and I do. On the other hand, our CFO and the head of HR get in later and stay later.
What would you say to a C-Suite leader who still thinks workplace flexibility is a nice-to-have perk, not a strategic imperative?
What is the end result you are looking for? You are looking to achieve corporate goals. Let’s be honest. Nobody goes around cheering that 99% of employees got to work today and worked eight hours.
What you want to know is that you have a highly motivated workforce that delivers high quality customer service. With flexibility, it helps to measure output over a longer-term period. Because of flexibility we are getting better productivity and commitment. When we look for volunteers to meet a tight deadline or deal with a backlog, everyone raises their hands to help. That’s engagement.
Too many CEOs believe they can force their will on people. It never works in the long run. Our turnover is ridiculously low (although we do let poor performers go) and we don’t have an absence problem because if someone is sick they stay home and don’t infect everyone.
We don’t do all of this because we are altruistic. It’s just a much simpler way to run a business. We’ve got good benefits and our pay is okay, but it’s our culture and work environment that retains, engages and motivates our people to provide great service