(Check out my blog this week at Fast Company.com–$10 Gas! The National Work+Life Flex Solution)
Ohio state government employees are learning the hard way that workplace flexibility must work for them personally and for the business, or it won’t continue. Their flex-gone-wrong scenario is a cautionary tale for all organizations. For flexibility to succeed, it must be a process-based strategy that considers each person’s unique work and personal realities, not a one-size-fits-all policy or benefit.
What happened in Ohio? According to a recent New York Times article, fifteen years ago the state of Ohio implemented a “flextime” policy to reduce rush-hour traffic in Columbus. But today, according to, Ron Sylvester, spokesman for the Ohio Department of Administrative Services, “There are some offices downtown where on Fridays you could roll a grenade down the central aisle where the cubicles are and you would have no casualties because the place is empty…We are simply trying to ensure that from 8:00 to 5:00 pm we are appropriately staffed to take care of the public’s needs and the needs of other state agencies.”
And he’s right. It’s not okay that, “too often departments were closed, phones went unanswered and customer service windows were left unattended, especially on Fridays, as state workers worked only four days a week.”
That’s what can happen when flex is a standardized policy or benefit. It is seen by employees as an entitlement, rather than a strategy for managing their work+life fit in a way that meets their personal needs as well as the needs of the business. Individuals check a box on a form for “compressed workweek” without ever having to step back and think about whether or not working four, ten-hour days with one day a week off would be compatible with their job. No one sits down with his or her manager to determine the best day not to be in the office given the other types of flexibility in the group. Not everyone can be out on Friday.
It’s true, as the state civil service union representative noted, that “the plan will unnecessarily hurt state employees, and will force families to rearrange ride-sharing, child care, after-school activities and other responsibilities.” But the fact remains that not everyone can be out of the office on Friday.
Unfortunately, the state’s reaction has been to take flexibility away altogether. It’s now required “that most state employees work 8:00 am to 5:00 pm, Monday through Friday, with an hour for lunch unless there is a job-related reason for the different schedule.” But the state could have responded another way.
The governor could have announced that going forward all flexibility would be determined by a consistent, uniform process. It would require each employee who wanted a formal flex plan to analyze their unique work and personal responsibilities to come up with a solution that worked for everyone.
Interestingly, whether he realized it or not, Mr. Sylvester hinted at a process-based solution when he said, “Managers could still offer employees tele-work options in some agencies and flexible hours…(but) compressed schedules—four-day workweeks, for example—would probably be mostly eliminated unless they could be justified for work reasons rather than personal ones.” In other words, in his opinion the work reality of most state agency jobs is incompatible with a compressed workweek but might support telecommuting and flexible hours.
Ohio’s governor and union leaders are stuck in an all or nothing policy/benefit mindset which makes flex ineffective and therefore no longer available. However, Mr. Sylvester seems to understand that while policy/benefit-based flex might be dead in Ohio, process-based flexibility will naturally continue. He doesn’t think traffic congestion will increase since, as he puts it, “many workers would still keep staggering schedule.”
Ohio’s experience is indeed a cautionary tale for all types of businesses. Unless flexibility is a process that considers both the needs of the individual and the business when creating mutually-beneficial solutions, there is a high probability that flexibility will fail. The truth is that all types of flexibility don’t work with all jobs. However, all jobs allow for some type of flexibility. Policy/benefit-based flexibility doesn’t require employees to analyze the compatibility of flex with their realities. The result is the organizational conclusion that “flexibility doesn’t work,” when it’s simply the policy of flexibility that doesn’t work. We all need to learn from, and avoid, Ohio’s mistakes.