CASE STUDY: FLEXIBLE WORK ARRANGEMENTS – FROM POLICY TO PRACTICE
By Marcia P. Ellis and Sandra Sullivan
“If you don’t know where you are going, any road will take you there.”
This quotation from Alice in Wonderland can apply to organizations struggling to implement flexible work arrangements (flextime, telecommuting/work-at-home, part time, job share, compressed work week). Many organizations are struggling with changing demographics of the workforce, an increase in absenteeism, tardiness and turnover, low morale, legislative mandates (Clean Air Act, Family Medical Leave Act, Americans with Disabilities Act), and an increase in the cost of office space and overhead. With new and constantly changing business challenges for organizations that are trying to remain profitable in an aggressive and highly competitive marketplace, flexibility is coming up a winner in creating positive change on the bottom line and for top performers in the organization. This article lays out a road map that is the basis for effectively implementing, expanding, and promoting flexibility in a changing workplace.
“There is Safety in Numbers”
It is vitally important to have a solid business case when implementing flexibility. Change is the only constant in todays business environment. To ensure a flexible work option initiative is not put on the “back burner”, be sure to integrate flexibility with other corporate initiatives. Organizations that are spending money on other initiatives and not incorporating flexibility could be losing on their investment. The numbers add up quickly if you know where to get them. There are six areas to gather data on where flexible work arrangement can effect the bottom line.
Technology is the enabler of flexibility. If an organization is looking at investing in technological advances and not considering portability or 24 hour access to information, it could be falling short of truly capitalizing on dollars spent for technology.
There is no such thing as a standard customer, wanting a standard product, during standard business hours. Many organizations are spending money on customer service training and building solid customer relations. Customer relationships are built with individuals not the entire organization. If customer service is a priority then so should the needs of the employees providing the customer service. Turnover, in the customer’s eyes, is a disruption in service and could be grounds for “going elsewhere”.
Flexibility can free up office space and reduce overhead. Once flexibility in properly implemented and voluntarily utilized by employees, desk requirements can often be significantly reduced. Desk sharing can reduce office space by one third to one half. Current statistics show the average office space costs about $3,000 per employee per month.
Legislative compliance can be facilitated in a low cost manner when flexibility is a part of the solution. Telecommuting and compressed work weeks are low cost, no cost solutions for reducing employee commutes. Indirect costs of FMLA (replacement workers, loss of productivity, training of temporary employees) can be expensive. In some cases an employee may not be able to work 9 to 5, but can work 12 – 8, with one day from their home. Including flexibility as an option when FMLA is discussed can be a win-win for the employee and organization.
re-engineering efforts should include examination of the 3 W’s: work, worker, and workplace, to find more efficient and productive ways to accomplish the missions of their businesses. Advances in technology have made portable business solutions. These portable solutions can increase productivity.
Valuing each employee includes understanding that everyone does not work the same all the time. Creating productive work environments for each employee will increase productivity and retain employees whose work habits are not supported by the 9 to 5 industrial age work week.
In real estate the three key words are location, location, location. When implementing flexible work arrangements, the words are communication, communication, communication. Use your company newsletter to report on progress. Maintain a group of employees who meet on a regular basis to continue communication and problem solving as the process of flexibility evolves. Integrating communication with other programs such as diversity, management training, or Employee Assistance Programs will keep flexibility integrated throughout the organization.
Ongoing communication is a key to success because in the business climate of the 90’s the only constant is change. Employees and managers should look at flexibility as a constantly evolving management tool. Openness to adjust will maximize the by product of flexibility which is productivity.
In order for a culture to embrace any type of change there must be ongoing training and support. Many organizations are surprised when flexibility is not utilized as much as they had anticipated. There can be “informal barriers” to flexibility within the organization that send the message “flexibility is not the BEST route for career growth.” Sometimes there is a mistaken ratio between the utilization rate of flexibility and the need for flexibility. Consider the following parallel. In 1905, football was a low scoring running game. The offense consisted of a “flying wedge” in which seven players ran together into the middle of the opposition in the hope of gaining three or four yards. Then in 1906, the forward pass was legalized. Passing made it possible to gain 40 yards with the flick of a wrist. During the first season however, most teams stayed almost entirely with their conventional tried and true running game. Recognizing that they were entering a new era in which the old football strategy was fast becoming obsolete, St. Louis Universityadapted, switching to an offense that used the forward pass extensively. That season St. Louis University outscored their opponents 402 – 11.
If St. Louis University followed the assumption that the forward pass must not be a good strategy because no teams utilized it, they would have had the same win-loss record as other teams. Instead they decided to learn about a new strategy and implemented it to create a new era of football productivity.
The same applies to flexibility. Working different hours in different places is a new “era” in business productivity. Organizations and supervisors can either stay with the old rules or they can adapt to the new style of play and train, plan, prepare, and implement.
Managers need training to understand the business needs and strategies for successfully managing a flexible workforce. Employees need training on how to develop options for flexibility and present the business case to managers. Demmings model of a solution oriented employee and a future thinking manager truly applies to flexibility. The employee needs some coaching in writing a business proposal for a flexible schedule and incorporating the company policy. Managers need to have information on the potentially new management style of valuing employees based on contribution, not exclusively on hours worked.
While many organizations understand the business imperatives behind flexible work arrangements and have policy statements in place, the culture change required to embrace flexibility is often not addressed. The following case study illustrates how these points can be woven together to foster the necessary culture change to effectively implement a flexible work options program.
Case Study on Flexibility
Sikorsky Aircraft Corporation undertook an initiative to bring flexible work policies from paper to practice. Although Sikorsky’s work-at-home, part-time and job share policies mirrored best practices in the field, their utilization rate was very low. Upon investigation it was determined that management buy-in was not sufficient and employees were hesitant to request a flexible work option fearing their careers would be derailed. The “Managing Flexibility for Productivity” program was designed to promote management and employee buy-in by addressing both the needs of the business and the employees. The program has four major components which make it successful:
1) A defined PROCESS which is consistent and documented, yet flexible in implementation. The process focuses on “how” the business need is met rather than “why” the employee is requesting flexibility. The process provides an opportunity for each request to be reviewed on its own merits based on how effectively the work requirements can be fulfilled, rather than on an ad hoc “accommodation” basis.
2) TOOLS to aid in the process. The tools consist of the Flex-It 20 Questions book series which are designed to help an employee in writing a proposal for a flexible work arrangement and the supervisor in evaluating the proposal. The proposal then serves as the basis for discussion between the employee and supervisor, and defines the expectations, measurements, and parameters of the arrangement.
3) MANAGEMENT TRAINING which builds the business case and addresses work beliefs that had previously inhibited the use of flexible work arrangements. For culture change to occur, it is vitally important that the old work paradigms are brought to the forefront and examined.
4) VISIBLE MANAGEMENT SUPPORT. Sikorsky produced an 11-minute videotape of testimonials from employees and all levels of management to articulate their commitment to flexible work arrangements.
In rolling out this program, an initial executive briefing was conducted. The business case for flexibility was clearly communicated, work paradigms were addressed, and the new process and tools were introduced resulting in the necessary senior management buy-in.
A pilot of a cross section of management was then conducted. Feedback was garnered from this group and appropriate revisions to the training were made. The four-hour training program was then initiated and all management personnel were required to attend. Employee briefings were also conducted to outline the new process and employee responsibilities.
Extending the training over a ten-month period proved to be advantageous. As the new process and tools were tried and proven successful, word of this circulated and served to gain support for flexible work arrangements. Another key learning from implementation was that each of the four components of the program was equally important to its success.
Sikorsky’s program won the Innovative Excellence Award from the Alliance of Work/Life Professionals. A clear measure of its success can be seen in the increase in participation of flexible work options. Prior to the training, there were just 14 employees in part-time or job sharing arrangements. Within 1 year after the training, there were nearly 50, an increase of over 300%. Over the same time period, employees working at home increased from 48 to over 250, of which 36% are men.
A real shift is noticeable in the general attitude of the workforce. Flexible work arrangements are now viewed as an acceptable alternative way of doing business. The tools and the training have created an environment where employees are comfortable requesting a flexible work arrangement and managers are able to successfully utilize flexibility to meet the business need.
“If you know where you are going, the road seems shorter and less rocky.”
Perhaps Alice in Wonderland has taught us a valuable lesson on creating the most productive work environment with flexibility as the foundation.
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