The “Flex and the C-Suite” series periodically showcases 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.
Barbara Taylor is the General Counsel of the national professional services firm, BDO USA, LLP. For the past five years, she has also been the senior leader champion of the firm’s award-winning BDO Flex strategy.
Our group has had the privilege of working with the internal BDO team helping them develop and implement their business-based approach to flexibility in how, when and where work is done. In our interview, Taylor shares important insights into why work+life flexibility is a strategic imperative and about the process the firm has followed to make it part of the culture.
Cali Yost: What are top challenges/opportunities you see for business over the next year or two?
Barbara Taylor: The economy will continue to be a very big challenge for some time. For BDO, this means a very competitive business environment and the pressure to do more with less. In addition, the 24/7 global work environment is here to stay. The challenge with that is how to manage work, schedules and resources across every time zone and keep up with everything that happens in the course of a continuous global workday.
I think the opportunity that comes from the challenges is that any business that can figure out how to manage those dynamics (such as matching people with client demand, maximizing use of space and resources, equipping teams to work across time zones) will have a distinct competitive advantage.
Cali Yost: In your opinion, how does work+life flexibility help an organization address those challenges or seize those opportunities?
Barbara Taylor: I see flexibility as one of the main tools that organizations can use to manage the business environment. At the core of the issue is that there are only 24 hours in every single day and people need to sleep at some point! Using flexibility–allowing people to shift their start/stop times, equipping people to work from home, and empowering them to flex around their work demands (e.g. after 3 am conference call, they sleep in and start work at 11)–are relatively simple ways to use flexibility to meet business demands.
At BDO, we have also started to think differently about people’s schedules and workloads over the course of a year. Making people more productive doesn’t just mean making them work more. It can mean re-thinking how to match their schedules with client demands. In accounting, there are times of the year we need people to be as productive/billable as possible. At other times of the year, we have more staff than work. There is an opportunity to use flexibility to better match salary costs to client demand. If someone reduces their hours during slow times it allows the employee more time for their personal lives and to recharge and also provide a financial break in salary costs for us. Then, that person can come back refreshed and highly billable during crunch times.
Flexibility also helps us manage growing real estate costs. When we open new offices, we have think about who can go to offices located in the suburbs, who can work from home, and who can share offices, which has real bottom line impacts.
Cali Yost: What three factors have been most critical to the successful implementation of flexibility at BDO?
Barbara Taylor: To start, we spent a lot of time building readiness with our partners and business line leaders. We focused on building a strong business case with particular attention to the benefits for our business and the individuals who work here.
Then, as a large organization with 40 offices, we rolled out our flexibility strategy with a combination of local and national elements. This allowed us to have a “one firm” approach while also providing room for customization based on each office’s unique local dynamics.
Finally, our strategy was designed to be customized by both employees and business leaders. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to flexibility that will work across business lines, levels, and geographies.
Cali Yost: What would you say to a C-Suite leader who still thinks work+life flexibility is a nice-to-have perk, not a strategic imperative?
Barbara Taylor: First, I would say that the “old” way of working will be less and less effective with each passing year and, eventually, it will be damaging to their business. Like all changes, there is a bell curve in adaption to new ways of doing things. There are early adopters and there are dinosaurs.
At this point in time, I truly believe that flexibility IS a strategic imperative. We are beyond the point where flexibility as a business strategy is only being used by early adopters. As a C-Suite leader, you don’t want to be the last person at the party, because it’s very hard to catch up at that point.
The advice that I would give someone who is resistant is to implement some small aspect of a flexibility strategy. Just give something a try. Start small with something that is most compelling. Test it out to see first-hand the benefits, to address concerns and to build up comfort with trying the next thing.