The conventional idea of what constitutes the “ideal worker” is more about presenteeism— the employee who remains chained to their desk, who burns the midnight oil, who sacrifices a personal life for their commitment to the company—and less about real productivity.
Not everyone will agree that there’s more to life than work, but even hardcore workaholics must admit that sometimes circumstances that aren’t directly related to the office affect how well we do our jobs. In days of yore, this was entirely the employee’s problem: If they had kids to attend to, an ailing family member to care for, marital problems, or just a grueling commute to and from headquarters, they dealt with things as quietly as possible (or in secret) for fear of impeding the chance for promotion. These work environments continue to exist, and while no one’s arguing that employees are off the hook when it comes to fulfilling their responsibilities, societal, generational, and cultural factors are combining to place a greater emphasis on the importance of enabling employees to do their work in such a way that allows them to have a life—if only so they’re better performers on the job. For employers who are striving to keep their existing clients happy and build strong relationships with new ones, this presents a tough challenge: If employees can pick and choose where and when they want to work, how is the work going to get done?

What works for one company doesn’t necessarily mean it will work for another, even if the two belong to the same industry, and “there are certain types of flexibility that will work and certain types of flexibility that won’t,” said Rachael Ellison, an organizational consultant and executive coach who spends much of her time counseling both individuals and companies on finding work/life solutions.

Rachael Ellison
The companies that are doing this have already figured this out, and workplace flexibility comes in many shapes and forms depending on the balance they’re trying to strike between what’s good for the organization and meeting their employees’ needs. Sometimes it’s as simple as a slight shift from regular office hours (i.e., instead of coming in at nine and leaving at five, an employee may start at 10 and stay till six). There are compressed workweeks, where, for example, an employee may opt to work 10 hours Monday to Thursday in order to have Friday off. Many businesses have employees who telecommute from home, be it several times a month or for the majority of their workweek. In some organizations, programs like summer hours and job sharing are considered workplace flexibility programs; and then there are ad hoc situations where, at the last minute, an employee needs the afternoon off for whatever reason (think: “My child is ill and we have a doctor’s appointment; I’ll make up the hours on my own time”).

Lisa Horn
Lisa Horn, director of congressional affairs and co-leader of the Workplace Flexibility Initiative at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), said her organization has witnessed success with both formalized workplace flexibility programs, as well as informal setups, where employers address flexibility on an ad hoc, individualized basis. The route a company chooses to take, she said, largely depends on its culture. However, she noted that creating a formalized program helps to avoid misunderstandings between employers, supervisors, and employees “of what this arrangement is and is not.”

There’s also the question of who gets what kind of flexibility: A receptionist, by definition, generally needs to be in the office during office hours, while salespeople can work from home when they’re not visiting clients. Engineers, programmers, and technicians are required to work around the clock to complete a specific project, presenting the opportunity to offer them more flexible hours in slower times. What’s important, Horn said, is not creating equality, where everyone gets the same flexibility, no matter their role in the company—a sure way to ensure that work doesn’t get done—but equity. “If it’s clearly communicated—‘You know, Joe, you can’t telework, but you can have autonomy over when you take your break times and your start and stop times’—that really goes a long way to alleviating that feeling of unfairness, as long as there’s something available to every member of the team,” she said. She uses SHRM as an example: In her role, she has the option to do compressed workweeks, telecommuting, and flex time. SHRM’s administrative staff, on the other hand, can’t telecommute, but they can take advantage of a compressed schedule, and while they’re expected to be present during core business hours, they have a bit of choice of when they begin and end their workday.

Rose Stanley
For companies that choose to formalize their workplace flexibility programs, Rose Stanley, senior practice leader at Worldat-Work, a human resources management association, pointed out that just because you institute a program doesn’t mean it has to be written in stone, forever. “You can always pilot it,” she said. “You can put parameters [in the policy that state], ‘We’re going to try it for six months and see how it goes.’”

Establishing employee availability, however, is only part of the equation, and it doesn’t necessarily answer the question of how the work is going to get done. If, for example, Sally’s compressed workweek means that she has Fridays off, can Susan realistically take over if a client needs to meet on that day? And, will she have all of the tools necessary to ensure that the client is well taken care of?

Ellison cited a company she’s familiar with that, upon learning that a senior staff member was taking maternity leave, examined these issues to develop a model whereby employees could hand off work to one another seamlessly, but she conceded they spent a considerable amount of time doing so. “They spent 50 or 60 hours getting it set up with that first person, but now they have a system where any employee can leave early, can have a family, can go on leave—can have any kind of situation that they need to tend to—and they can easily pass their work off to somebody else,” she explained. While solutions like project management and collaborative tools play a big role in keeping remote employees aligned, workflow management practices like the one Ellison described also require people to be transparent, so their colleagues can successfully pick up from where they left off. “You need to change the culture so that documenting their progress, very explicitly, is something they feel comfortable doing.”

Regardless, Ellison believes that it pays to be flexible. She said that the conventional idea of what constitutes the “ideal worker” is more about presenteeism—the employee who remains chained to their desk, who burns the midnight oil, who sacrifices a personal life for their commitment to the company—and less about real productivity. “Our best work gets done when we’re feeling engaged and satisfied with our lives overall, both in the workplace and outside the workplace,” she said. She also argued that the more control employees have over their schedules, the better performers they will be. “We have to think about what more they could achieve if they were able to bring their whole self to work in a different way. [The] more flexibility you give for someone to be able to meet their needs inside and outside of work, the more opportunities they have to grow as professionals, and to innovate in your organization.”

Carolyn Heinze is a freelance writer/editor.

Flex Time: Track Their Hours

Lisa Horn, director of congressional affairs and co-leader of the Society for Human Resource Management’s Workplace Flexibility Initiative, cautions employers that if they offer workplace flexibility, they should ensure they have an adequate system in place for tracking the hours employees actually work. This issue is further complicated by the new rule issued by the U.S. Department of Labor, which mandates that as of December 1, 2016, the salary threshold for those eligible for overtime pay will rise to $47,476 a year.

“Ultimately that means that many more organizations, especially small and medium-sized businesses, are going to have to make some tough decisions about reclassifying their currently exempt employees… a lot of your midlevel managers who currently are exempt but maybe make under that $47,000 threshold, they’ll have to be reclassified,” Horn explained. “Non-exempts will have to track time, and that’s where organizations have to be particularly careful when it comes to a flex time arrangement, so they’re making sure that all hours worked are, in fact, tracked.”
––C.H.