Winter’s Challenges–Illness and Weather–and Flexibility

The other day I was on the phone with a colleague who obviously had a terrible cold. She said, “I sound worse than I feel. You know if I had gone into an office today, I would have gotten everyone else sick. Instead I am working from home because I don’t feel sick enough not to work, but I don’t feel well enough to haul myself out of my house.”

Imagine how many fewer sick days companies would have to pay for (in terms of lost productivity) if employees not sick enough to be bed-ridden, but sick enough to be contagious worked from home. I couldn’t help thinking of the cost-benefit analysis: fewer people sick overall, and more people working at least partially, instead of not at all, equals more productivity. In fact, companies, like Lehman Brothers, consider their flexibility strategy to be a critical crisis management tool in the event of something like a potential avian flu outbreak.

And it’s not just winter illnesses. What about the weather? The 10 feet of snow in upstate New York, and our current snow storm got me thinking of the power of flexibility to allow companies to run in spite of such unpredictable weather challenges.

Here’s a perfect example. I was conducting a series of Work+Life Fit seminars for employees of a large pharmaceutical company which is widely recognized for their innovative embrace of work+life supports and flexibility. Halfway through the second session of the day, a winter storm hit. Within an hour, two inches of snow covered the roads and it didn’t look like it would end anytime soon. A group of senior executives decided to end the session early, and then something amazing happened. This group of executives all spontaneously looked at each other and began to discuss how they would work remotely the next day: how they could be reached, when they would be working given potential snow days for their kids, how their meeting would be conduced via dial-in versus live, etc. They didn’t miss a beat.

I sat back and watched this discussion for about 15 minutes, and when it was over said, “What happened just now is one of the most important yet overlooked benefits of truly integrating flexibility into your culture. Yes, flexibility is important in helping people manage their work and life, but it’s also very important in helping organizations operate in spite of unforeseen challenges, like the weather. Unlike organizations where flexibility is not a part of the day-to-day management of the business, your company won’t lose an entire day of productivity because of the snow.” You could tell they were quite pleased with themselves.

Illness, the weather, or any other unforeseen external factor that prevents employees from physically working in the office can be managed using flexibility; the same flexibility that helps people to manage their work+life transitions. But here’s the rub: Companies can’t wait until people get sick, or a snow storm hits, to roll out flexibility. It must already be part of your company’s day-to-day business strategy to work in a crisis.

If you are an individual or manager who wishes your organization had a more formal flexibility strategy that’s part of its everyday culture, this is a perfect argument to convince naysayers it’s more than a mother’s issue. While today’s 24/7, high-tech, global work reality contributes to our work+life challenges, it also creates a lot of opportunity for working more effectively, and flexibly. We need to see it and leverage it.

Question: Have you successfully used flexibility to work when you didn’t feel well enough to go to the office, or when winter weather hit? Does your organization support using flexibility to manage winter’s challenges? (Note: I am still fine tuning my new spam filter so please ignore any message that says your comment has been identified as spam. I can still see it and approve it. Thanks!)

5 thoughts on “Winter’s Challenges–Illness and Weather–and Flexibility

  1. Negative. Cali, unfortunately, my company is far from this wonderful concept of flexibility during inclement weather and when one is not feeling well enough to go to office, but not sick enough to be bed-ridden. Why would they rather pay an entire sick day while they can get some productivity from me by working from home and not contaminating others at work – is beyond my simple minded comprehension.

    Just yesterday (2/14/07) we had really bad road conditions due to snow/ice. I drove into work (35 miles per hour for 46 miles) in what I considered hazardous conditions. I had the option to take a vacation day. However, with two children, I would rather not need to take a vacation day when I may very well need it for an emergency during the course of the year. And in addition, with all the outstanding work – I didn’t want to lose a day. As I drove in – I saw 6 vehicles who had slipped off the road and into the down slopes of the highway. I kept thinking to myself, why am I out here risking an accident and why would the company not realize that giving their employees the opportunity to work from home would be a much safer and productive option. I do not understand the concept and would rather stop here. Thank you for a forum to let it out…

  2. Hi Cali,
    Great article. One thing that employers are faced with in trying to be flexible is the DOL and non-exempt staff. They have to be paid for any time worked and their roles don’t typically provide for that level of flexibility because of what they touch in the office.
    It’s a great perspective for professional and executive level staff who are exempt -as they must be paid no matter what – no docking.

    For many years this has proved to be the crux of the dicotomy between the two. It creates more priviledges for exempt positions and disgruntled non-exempts for the lack thereof. Then it becomes a fairness and morale issue.

    Believe me, if all could work from home on those “just can’t get out” days either due to weather or a bit sick, I’d go for it all the way around. One of my clients does this however, most are all professional, exempt positions.

    Just thought I’d share that info that tends to be the glitch for most companies trying to do the progressive, right thing.

    Take care,

  3. The ability to work remotely is a weapon that firms can use to increase their advantage. More importantly is how quickly they can dispense this weapon into staff’s hands. No one plans to be sick, and weather anomalies/natural disasters are hard to predict. Speed is everything.

  4. The ability to work remotely is a weapon that firms can use to increase their advantage. More importantly is how quickly they can dispense this weapon into staff’s hands. No one plans to be sick, and weather anomalies/natural disasters are hard to predict. Speed is everything.

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