Flexibility is key for keeping good employees

MIAMI -- When I had my first two kids a year apart, it became challenging to keep up with the deadlines and long hours that the news business required. After a few days of not seeing my little ones before they went to bed, I considered quitting. ...

MIAMI -- When I had my first two kids a year apart, it became challenging to keep up with the deadlines and long hours that the news business required. After a few days of not seeing my little ones before they went to bed, I considered quitting. Instead, I asked my manager for a reduced schedule.

That was the original definition of flexibility, an accommodation for a working mom. Fifteen years later, the conversation has changed. Today, flexibility is about the bottom line, a solution to a business challenge.

"Today, companies are using flexibility to help drive business results," said Ellen Galinsky, president of Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit that conducts research on the changing workforce. "There is no one kind of flexibility that's right for all. The solution has to fit the problem."

Of course, some businesses brush aside workplace concerns in the midst of an economic recession and are focused only on making the next sales target. But the changing workforce makes ignoring flexibility as a solution difficult for others to ignore: Employees are struggling with elder care issues, unsustainable long work hours, a desire to phase into retirement, or conflicts that arise when both parents work.

When Bon Secours, with 20,000 employees, realized its workforce of experienced nurses was aging, it introduced scheduling options for those transitioning into retirement. For example, they can retire at 65 and work part time while collecting a pension.


In Michigan, Menlo Innovations wanted to attract and keep top talent in a highly competitive field. The 15-person software design firm pairs its workers on shared computers and switches the pairs regularly. The cross training makes it possible for no time off request to be denied -- no matter how long or short. Even more, it keeps its employees to a 40-hour work week "a sustainable pace" with no one working weekends or evenings to prevent burn out.

Such examples abound and for the first time, the Families and Work Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management have compiled "The Guide to Bold New Ideas for Making Work Work." It's a look at more than 425 companies of all sizes and industries in 44 states that are standout examples of employers who use flexibility as part of their business strategy.

"There are some employers who are not against flex; they just don't know how to go about doing it to make it work, said Lisa Horn, co-director of Society for Human Resource Management's workplace flexibility project.

One small business owner admits to being an initial skeptic of flexibility. A few years ago, G. Brint Ryan, the CEO of Texas-based tax firm Ryan LLC, had a talented employee come into his office, tell him that she loved the company and her job, but she needed to quit because the way that she was working was unsustainable. That got his attention. Ryan started a program that focuses on work results achieved, not hours worked. Employees can choose to work when and where they are most effective and efficient.

Describing himself as a rabid capitalist, Ryan said, "I didn't go down this path to provide another employee benefit. This is not like Friday afternoon pizza. I wanted to make money." The results have been more than positive. For the past two years, during these recessionary times, the company has posted record profits and revenues and great client rankings.

Even the White House is pushing workplace flexibility, calling it important to our nation's competitiveness in the 21st century economy. It is urging federal agencies to allow workers to telecommute for continuity of operations and lower costs should an area get hit with a snowstorm or other disruption. The White House also has brought together employers, employees, advocates, labor leaders and experts to trade information about options that are working in the workplace. Those options include telecommuting, flex time, job sharing, helping with childcare and eldercare, and predictable scheduling. Part-time schedules still are the most prevalent flexible work arrangement.

In Miami, Jim Kaufman at the Miami accounting firm of Kaufman Rossin & Co. saw the same business need -- to keep his skilled accountants before, during, and after the brutal tax season. Some are working mothers, others older accountants looking to trim back on their schedule. Today, about 25 percent of his staff has flexible work arrangements. Even Kaufman takes advantage of working from home a few mornings a week. "Sometimes we adjust hours, other times where they work, and sometimes staff is seasonal and takes the summers off. Our professionals don't spend time fretting if they need flexibility. It's part of our firm culture."

For low-wage, hourly workers, there's an effort underway by Workplace Flexibility 2010 and the Institute for Workplace Innovation at the University of Kentucky. Liz Watson, legislative counsel for Workplace Flexibility 2010, says retailers, restaurants and hotels that hire hourly workers found a solution to disruptive turnover by giving employees more predictability in their weekly schedules or letting them take breaks at the same time each day, the kind of flexibility they need to balance family obligations and keep their jobs.


"Introducing flexibility is just the beginning," Galinsky explained. "It is important to be able to assess the success of such programs."



--The solution has to fit the problem, and it has to work for both employee and employer.

--It's not just about initiatives; it's about creating a culture of flexibility.

--Be clear about metrics for success.

--Involve top and middle managers.

--Start small; try piloting a program before launching full-scale.


--Develop checkpoints to assess results and improve or make adjustments as necessary.

--Recognize and reward managers who use flexibility effectively.

How companies use flexibility:

--Partially paid summer sabbaticals at accounting firm Margolin, Winer and Evens in Garden City, N.Y., help control labor costs during the summer slowdown.

--Rotating compressed workweeks for administrative staff at BDO USA in 29 U.S. locations has cut overtime and operational costs while extending administrative coverage.

--Cisco's "Off/On Ramp," enables employees at the San Jose, Calif., worksite to take a 12- to 24-month unpaid break from their career, while maintaining benefits for the first year.

Source: Families and Work Institute and Society of Human Resource Management

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