Work+Life Flexibility Crossroads—Will We Go Forward or Backward?

In February, 2008, as the recession clouds started to gather, I posted a prediction of what would happen to work life flexibility when the storm broke.  I knew we’d arrived at the crossroad I envisioned last February, when I read this week’s Washington Post article, “As Cuts Loom, Will Working From Home Lead to a Layoff?”  The experts, employees, and managers interviewed (as well as people commenting online) recognize and express the knee-jerk response I feared then, “Forget flexibility, people are just luck to have jobs.”

The question becomes whether this backward-looking response will prevail, or will the wisdom of the organizations that recognize there’s no going back on workplace flexibility if their businesses and the people who work for them are to succeed?  Instead of a “policy,” “benefit,” “program,” or “arrangement” reserved for good times,  will flexibility take its rightful place as a way of operating, as part of the culture and core strategy?  For more information on what using work+life flexibility as a business strategy means, check out video highlights from speeches I gave recently on the subject.

In a nutshell, flexibility helps an organization manage costs and resources (e.g. real estate), service clients, helps employees manage their work+life fit, improves environmental sustainability and creates an environment of innovation:

  • Many companies are actively using flexibility to reduce labor costs and minimize layoffs in the recession.  And, as CV Harquail points out in the Authentic Organizations blog, there are important leadership opportunities in flexible alternatives to layoffs that go beyond the labor cost savings.
  • Just this week I learned that Johnson Space Center incorporates work+life fit into their Inclusion and Innovation Initiative.
  • Astellas Pharma reduced employee schedules on Friday without reducing salaries so they can have a better “balance.”

Not every organization is turning back the clock to 1985.  Many are moving flexibly into 2009 and beyond.  As we decide which path to take—to go forward or go back—here’s my post from February 1, 2008 that outlines the choices.  There’s still time.

Over the past couple of weeks, I’ve been repeatedly asked: “What do you think will happen to work+life fit and flexibility if the economy experiences a recession?”

I think two things will happen. Unfortunately, too many leaders and organizations will default to a shortsighted fall back position, “Forget flexibility. People are just lucky to have jobs.” But the smart leaders and organizations won’t. They will continue to move forward integrating flexibility into the way they do business because they understand that there is no turning back. To use a recession as an excuse to stop developing news ways of flexibly managing work and life will only put them further behind in terms of growth potential when a recession ends.

What do these smart leaders and organizations know that the less enlightened overlook? They understand that flexibility is key to their businesses success in a 24/7, high tech, global work reality. They know that:

Even in a recession talent will still be a scare commodity (see the results from PriceWaterhouse Cooper’s recent Global CEO Survey). If organizations hope to hold on to valuable talent (especially employees under the age of 30) once a recession ends they better do all they can now to win employee loyalty and be the employer of choice. And finding a better work+life fit is very important to a majority of the workforce. As a leader in a professional services firm recently said to me, “Back in 1975, there were 30 resumes for every job. Now there are 10 jobs for every qualified resume.” That ratio isn’t going to change drastically with a recession (Update: I obviously didn’t foresee the growth in layoffs as the recession unfolded. I would have moved the last two bullets up to the beginning);

You can’t effectively service global clients and manage global teams without flexibility that considers impact on work+life fit. Domestic employees can’t be on the phone all night with Singapore and then haul themselves into work the next day 8-to-6. Clients and teams in other countries can’t always be expected to be the ones to make the early morning/late night concessions. Organizations aren’t going to stop operating globally because of a recession;

In a recession, more needs to be done with fewer resources. It’s even more critical that your employees are at their most productive and your workflow and communication management is at its most efficient. Studies show that flexibility to help employees manage their work+life fit results in increased productivity, more efficiency, and better communication.

Finally, companies that need to cutback will use flex to creatively downsize. By offering to reduce schedules or a transition people to project-based, consulting work, employees who otherwise would lose their tie to the organization can stay. When business turns around, those companies then have the option of offering those employees a return to a full-time schedule.

So which direction do you think the leaders of your organization will choose as we move further into the recession? Will they follow the knee-jerk retrenchment where all innovation related to work+life fit and flexibility not only halts but reverses as people fear for their jobs? Or will the recognition that flexibility is more important that ever to manage time, talent, and workflow prevail?

One thought on “Work+Life Flexibility Crossroads—Will We Go Forward or Backward?

  1. Richard Federico, author of “Battling to Be The Best”, also predicts a return to “line-of-sight management”. See Scary stuff. But while the concern over work-life setbacks is a real one, I’m encouraged by the actions of the “best” companies. On this year’s “100 Best Companies to Work For” in Fortune magazine, 19 offer paid sabbaticals, up from 16 in 2008.

Comments are closed.