We live in a fast-changing, ever-changing world. Technology continues to blur the lines between our professional and personal lives, and the needs of customers as well as employees continue to evolve. As a result, workplace flexibility has become increasingly important. A work environment that reflects and supports an expanded view of how work can be done today is as key a component of the employee experience as a competitive salary and benefits. To attract and retain the best talent, companies must move away from thinking that the only productive employee is one who is “physically” present.
While the specifics of work flex may mean something different to everyone in today’s diverse, multigenerational workforce, here’s one thing employers who value top talent can agree on: We want to offer a flexible workplace. A program that offers a variety of options and levels of work-life balance can accommodate a wide range of situations and serves to promote a more inclusive workplace. The broadest programs include:
- Work-from-home (or from an alternative location)
- Compressed workweeks
- Part-time work
- Flexible start and stop times (flextime)
Flexible work options also help recruiters expand their talent pool and keep companies competitive in the market. If recruiters and hiring managers discuss whether a flexible arrangement could work for a given position during the initial job description intake, then that information can be included in the job posting. This serves the dual purpose of informing prospective job candidates that a company offers flexible work as well as setting expectations for the position.
Morale boost = productivity boost
But does flex really improve employee morale? You bet! Our workplace flexibility program at Liberty Mutual is relatively new, yet it’s already having an impact; employees participating in the program have reported increased satisfaction with work life balance. In fact, satisfaction with flexible work arrangements was the largest dimension increase in our most recent Employee Engagement Survey—with some groups reporting double-digit increases in just one year.
Many employees surveyed said they feel more focused at work and appreciate the greater flexibility for scheduling personal appointments or managing family commitments. And those able to work from home more often welcome the reduced commuting time and costs. Taking a child, a parent or even a pet to the doctor no longer means sacrificing an entire morning, because flexible work options allow employees to take charge of their schedules and remove any stigma associated with not being “present” from 9 to 5.
There are three key elements that promote successful flex: technology, mindset and manager effectiveness. Technology such as Skype (or Google Hangout) and Bring-Your-Own-Mobile-Device are flex work’s connectivity lynchpins. Whether in the office or in alternate work locations, Skype’s chat and share screen features make facilitating and participating in meetings with remote employees easy and seamless versus the old-school process of distributing and opening (or even printing) large files via email. Employees calling in to a meeting no longer feel like a disembodied voice on the phone, struggling to participate in the conversation. No longer do meeting leaders have to say “Sorry, you can’t see this but I’m showing the group a chart … .” Skype increases meeting quality and lets all participants contribute to the discussion and remain engaged.
The other enablers, mindset and manager effectiveness, work hand-in-hand to make flex work part of a company’s culture. It is not enough to say “we now have a flexible work program” and expect the company to change on its own. The shift requires buy-in and ongoing visible support from senior leadership to effect a change in mindset, culture and management style. To help remove any employee hesitancy about participating in flex work, some of our managers started working from home to demonstrate that this is a true cultural shift and should be adopted when and where the needs of the employees align with the needs of the business. The concept of not being physically present can be a difficult one for traditional companies to embrace, and it’s important to recognize that this could be a dramatic mindset shift for many people. Having good strategies to keep communications lines open—stories on internal news platforms, discussion in daily huddle meetings—will reinforce this cultural shift and help managers incorporate flex work within their teams.
Being flexible about flex
As companies experiment with the right workplace flex programs for their business, it’s important to engage with and provide training to managers, run pilots and expand options to getting work done. Flexible work is not one-size-fits-all, even within the same company. Nor is it a once-and-done initiative. Successful flex work is supported by a combination of policies, practices and mindsets, all of which need to evolve and respond to changing customer and employee needs. Flexible work arrangements and employee participation in them today will help prepare companies for future changes in how companies get work done. As concepts such as “teaming”—where small, nimble teams form to work on a specific project and then disband upon completion—are adopted, flexible options will continue to broaden. Embracing a comprehensive flex work model will help companies remain relevant in today’s job market and give them a model for successful culture change.
Author Melanie Foley is a mom of two teenage girls, EVP and chief talent & enterprise services officer for Liberty Mutual Insurance, and member of the Board of Trustees at Boston Medical Center. Melanie is an avid believer in the power of community service both in and out of the office, serving as a foster parent for two young children and providing support to community organizations including SMILE Mass, the Women’s Lunch Place and the Shingo Institute.
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