The Flexibility Working Retreat group spent the day creating a vision of optimal flexibility in both corporations and universities and then we addressed the challenges for making that vision a reality. To learn more about the objectives for flexibility in higher education, check out my blogtalkradio interview with Claire Van Ummersen, VP at the American Council on Education.
Optimal Vision–Work, Systems and Careers Need to Transform to Match New Realities that Require “Flexibility” in It’s Broadest Definition
It is always rewarding and encouraging to sit in a meeting of respected professionals in your field and have them echo what you believe and have been doing with your work. Then it is even more rewarding to hear the same approach and understanding being embraced in a completely different industry. That was what happened today: Everyone agreed that work has changed radically, and it required flexibility in terms of how much work can reasonably be completed, who does work, where the work is done, and when the work happens.
But it isn’t enough to change and transform the internal systems and the way work is done, we need to challenge external influences that limit the amount of flexibility that can ultimately happen. A perfect example in academia being the fact that outside funding institutions can be hesitant to fund researchers working less than “full-time,” even though part-time tenure track professors may only be working 20% less than their full-time colleagues.
Some of the elements of this optimal vison of flexibility developed by the group included:
1) It’s just the way we do things, in fact we don’t even talk about flexibility because it’s just the way we work
2) There are no “normative” schedules or career paths
3) Competitive advantage, global coverage, retention, recruitment, real estate savings, bench strength development important to operationlizing flexibility
4) Informal flexibility supported
5) Flexibility offered to and used by everyone regardless of life realities and circumstances
6) Individual AND Corporate needs are considered and addressed
7) Respect of the individual and their responsibility for getting the work done key
We then looked at best practice changes taking place in key areas impacting flexibility: Leaves and time off, career flexibility, flexible ways to work, metrics and measurement, multi-generational issues and creating a flexible culture. The stories of creative innovation were so plentiful that we couldn’t get through the entire reporting out process before we needed to break! Very encouraging.
Overcoming the Challenges of Making that Vision of Flex a Reality
If there is one thing to be said about this group, it is that we all may be optimists, but we are also very realistic. We’ve worked with flexibility long enough to know that even the strongest, most well-thought out business case can easily get derailed if you don’t idenitify the potholes which historically will stand in your way and create a strategy to get around them. So, the rest of the meeting was spent on the challenges of implementation which included:
1) Educating and getting buy-in at all levels of the organization: Senior leader, middle manager, individiual.
2) Deal with the issues of workload and expectations
3) Particularly in higher education, deal with issues of equity and access across the organization between staff, and faculty.
4) Address historical lack of accountability for making flexibility succeed.
5) Helping the organization to be open to innovating the way work is done, recognizing work has changed radically
6) Creating tools and training to educated managers and employees
Interestingly, we closed by comparing flexibility in the traditional, industrial age model of work with flexibility in the service/knowledge-based workplace we have today. And when the comparison of how managers behave, how employees are measured, work is done, etc. in the two different realities stand side-by-side it is clear how far all levels of the organization need to come to truly make flexibility an effective strategy.
There are many beliefs, behaviors and systems that are held over from a more automated, mechanistic time, that no longer have relevance. Regardless of whether they are relevant or not, they still constitute the “truth” for members of organization. And the resistance to change you inevitably encounter when developing and implementing a flexibility strategy represents the anxiety–organizationally, managerially, individually–when a truth is challenged and replaced.
As we looked at the change management model, we then had to pick a person we wanted to influence and determine how we would achieve our desired change goal. The good news is as I imagined the person I chose as my focus for change, I was able to draw upon all of the case studies and strategies from the day’s discussion. Change is happening.
Tomorrow, we end by sharing our “ah ha” moments and then concretely discussing how we will use this information to break new ground. In each of my blogtalkradio interviews from the meeting I’ve asked my guests what impact they hope the meeting will have on the individual inside of a company or university. And their answers are the same as my own, that everyone will step forward and be able to successfully use flexibility to manage all of the areas of their work and life, and do it in a way that works for the individual and the organization. After today, I feel even more optimistic that day will come.