Thank Millennials for Pushing Work Cultures Toward True Flexibility

I’ve noticed a change recently. Five years ago, when an organization wanted to make their workplace more flexible, nine times out of ten the presenting problem was attracting and retaining women, specifically mothers. Today, it’s all about the millennials, and providing the “work/life balance” and flexibility this group expects from an employer.

As was the case with the “attract and retain women” cohort, these millennial-focused organizations have two choices. They can:

  1. Develop flexible work programs and policies that target this one particular group, or
  2. Step back and use the expectations of millennials as the doorway to a broader change. Creating a high-performance, flexible work culture with “new ways to work” achieves multiple business objectives.

When faced with these two options, you’d think most organizations would pick Door No. 2. Unfortunately, many choose Door No. 1. Why?

The answer is pretty clear. Programs and policies require fewer resources than bigger culture changes. They take less money, time and people. They’re easier.

Here’s the guidebook I see organizations following when they pick that first option, focused on policies and programs:

  • Draft a policy outlining the standard flexible work arrangements you want to offer at “manager’s discretion.” This may include telework, flexible hours, a compressed work week, part-time work and job sharing.
  • Clarify your parental leave policy, offer dependent care supports, or put up a ping-pong table in the break room.
  • List these programs and policies on your site under “benefits” and (maybe) run a lunch-and-learn session to explain how to access them.
  • Then, check the balance and flexibility boxes “done.”

From my experience, what millennials really want isn’t a policy or program. They aren’t necessarily looking for a formal flexible work arrangement that officially defines how, when or where they work on any given day. And they don’t even want “balance.” They want a degree of control over how they fit work and life together, day to day. That’s harder to wrap neatly into a one-size-fits-all benefit. It requires fundamentally rethinking the way work is done. It means walking through Door No. 2, and undertaking a broader culture change.

How do you begin creating a high-performance, flexible work culture? You start by justifying the investment in time, people and money by quantifying the potential return.

Outline exactly how flexibility (giving people greater control over how, when and where work is done) helps the organization solve numerous problems or seize multiple opportunities, including the attraction and retention of millennials. Your list of problems solved and opportunities seized might include (in no particular order):

  • Uncouple talent from geography, expanding access to good people regardless of their location.
  • Give workers in increasingly open and dense workspaces the option to telework, as needed, if it helps them concentrate and be more productive.
  • Help people fit cost-saving, wellness-related activities (exercise, healthy eating, sleep, doctor’s appointments) into everything else they need to do, on and off the job.
  • Support the partial and phased retirement of valuable employees who don’t want to work full-time but can continue to contribute their talent.
  • Allow work to continue during a snowstorm or other unexpected natural disaster.
  • Retain employees who need to reset the way work and life fit together because of a major life transition, such as becoming a parent, caring for an aging relative, going back to school, or the relocation of a spouse.
  • Expand administrative coverage beyond regular business hours without an associated increase in non-exempt overtime, by coordinating staggered schedules.
  • Leverage existing investments in technology to improve communication and coordination of a flexible workforce.

I could go on and on. Instead, I’ll say this: Yes, millennials expect work flexibility. But we should take that expectation and use it as a catalyst to create flexible work cultures that benefit the business and all employees — not just millennials.  

I invite you to connect with me on Twitter @caliyost and on Facebook.

About Flex+Strategy Group/Work+Life Fit, Inc.

We engage employees at all levels to create high performance flexible work cultures that attract and retain top talent, increase productivity and improve work+life fit. Read our latest research. Interested in working together? Contact us.

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