Delivering on the Promise of Work Flexibility

Recently, I was interviewed for an insightful article in USA Today entitled “More Employers Offer Flexible Hours, but Many Grapple with How to Make It Succeed” reporting the results of a national survey of hiring managers. After that interview, I re-read the recent article in the New York Times, “Young People are Going to Save Us All from Office Life” because I realized, together, they shed light on a critical workplace trend:

Employers have reached a tipping point. Younger workers are bringing their default expectation of flexibility into the workplace and it is forcing employers to grapple with how to respond.  While many are struggling with that response, clearly a meaningful percentage of hiring managers (44%) see an opportunity. They’re offering the promise of flexible scheduling, upfront, as part of their recruitment value proposition to differentiate their companies in a tight labor market (see chart below)

This brings up a couple of key challenges for employers:

Challenge #1: If an organization makes the promise to offer real and meaningful flexibility, how do they deliver on that promise in a way that works for the business and the person?  The USA Today story provides a great example of a failure to deliver:

“Last month, Michael Richman, owner of Academy Awning in Montebello, California, waded gingerly into the modern world of flexible work schedules, allowing a 22-year-old designer to come in at odd hours so he could go back to college full time.  It didn’t go well.

“The designer wasn’t available midday to answer questions from an East Coast customer and was hard-pressed to quickly address concerns raised by welders and other factory employees at the awning maker, which has 35 staffers.

“Richman also wondered how much the designer was really working when he was alone in the office. ‘It was a disaster,’ Richman says. ‘We have to have a somewhat regimented schedule. To have people coming and going at different times creates disruption.'”

What could Academy Awning have done differently?  Three things:

Train their employees upfront in the skills to propose a formal flexible “reset” of how, when, and where they work.  The designer wasn’t making small, informal, flexible tweaks to his work+life fit.  He was fundamentally changing the way he worked.  That required creating a plan that outlined how he was going to shift his schedule but still meet the core requirements of his job, which seemed to include:

  • Answering questions midday from East coast customers. Solution: Try to schedule classes toward the end of the day and evening when possible, and when at class, regularly check emails and answer any important questions during a break.
  • Quickly address concerns raised by welders and other factory employees. Solution: Share his schedule with welders and factory employees in advance. Check in to see if they have any questions before leaving for class and let them know the best way to reach him if they have an urgent matter.

Unfortunately, according to our research, a majority of employees who work flexibly receive no training or guidance at all.  Well-implemented flexibility requires training employees, teams and managers in the mindset, skills and tools they need to succeed.

Clarify expectations, ask for regular progress updates, and agree to performance metrics.  In a culture of high performance flexibility, a leader doesn’t wonder if someone is working if they are alone.  First, they don’t assume a person is working when they are physically sitting in the office because they know presence doesn’t equal performance.  Second, leaders continually clarify what matters, what’s being measured, and how it’s measured.  As long as that is happening, they don’t worry whether they can or can’t see an employee.

Re-calibrate if the flexibility is not working versus calling it a “disaster.” Realities change, and sometimes even the most thoughtful formal reset plan that everyone expected to work may not once it’s implemented. In that case, supervisors and employees know upfront (because that’s how they’ve been trained) it’s time to re-calibrate, not necessarily completely throw in the towel.

Starting with these three steps, an employer could confidently include flexibility in the way work is done in their recruitment value proposition because they can fulfill that promise.

Which brings us to…

Challenge #2: If you don’t want to promise work flexibility, how will you compete for top talent against the employers that do?  Good question. It’s one that leaders need to consider carefully.

To that end, a few weeks ago, I talked about the loyalty high performance flexibility creates. And I asked you to share your stories. Here’s one from a senior leader about the executive assistant she was able to retain:

“Many years ago, the woman who was my executive assistant came to me with a request.  She had recently become a single mom of elementary-aged girls and wanted to know if I would ‘allow’ her to come to the office a bit after 9 AM rather than our opening hours of 8.  In addition to being my right hand, she also supervised the other staff who were the administrative support in the Vice President’s office.

“She did not want to have to put her girls in a before-school program as well as an after-school program. She told me that she would happily get up early, work from home for an hour before waking her daughters, sharing breakfast with them, and seeing them on the bus. Then she would drive to work to start her day.

“To me, the answer was obvious…I was just so glad she was willing to come forward with the plan because I don’t think I was sensitive enough, at the time, to realize the stress of both a before-school and after-school program for her daughters, and for her.

“Aside from giving her that flexibility, she also got WAY more accomplished in that hour-plus of work in the early AM, without staff to supervise, phones to answer, or me asking her questions with some frequency.  My only request of her was to work with the staff she supervised to make sure the office opened, and the phones were answered at 8, even with her not being there.

“Her staff more than rose to the occasion and accepted the responsibility readily. The hour in the AM also gave me a chance to get to know them even better because often they were stepping up to help with something I needed in the office…and they were more than capable of providing that assistance.

“Also, when one of the girls was sick, having her work from home, rather than take a sick day, also made sense as she, again, accomplished a great deal in that quiet setting.

“That Susan was a self-starter, and high-level performer made the decision to support the flexibility she needed easy. Furthermore, the thought that she might look elsewhere for a position with more flexibility was frightening.  We needed her even more than she needed us!”

What’s happening in your organization?  Are you offering the promise of work flexibility upfront in your recruitment value proposition?  If yes, how are you making sure you are able to deliver on that promise in a way that works for the business and the person?  As always, I love to hear from you!

To receive weekly insights in your inbox, sign up for our High Performance Flexibility newsletter here.


Provide your email and receive the “Does Your Organization Have a High Performance Flexible Work Culture?” Assessment and get-started insights.

REIMAGINE how, when, and where WORK is done Today...and Tomorrow

Receive Cali Williams Yost's weekly insights on High Performance Flexibility.