Was it ever OK to go camera off?

I’m consistently asked this question: how do we communicate most effectively as we transition to working across different onsite and remote workplaces and spaces?

Many of the default communication norms adopted during the crisis-driven shift to remote work no longer serve us. They need to be reviewed and, possibly, revised.

Thank you to ROY MAURER for asking me to share my thoughts on virtual meetings, video conferencing and the need to intentionally clarify norms like, “cameras on or cameras off?”

Full article can be accessed here

“Flex” Your Business Model to Seize Market Opportunities and Address Challenges

Several segment leaders across different industries made headlines for “flexing” their traditional business models to seize market opportunities and address operating challenges. These nimble businesses reimagined how, when and where work could be done. In the process, they showed that work flexibility is much more than an HR perk, digital app or workspace redesign.

Instead these savvy businesses used work flexibility as a powerful strategy to respond rapidly and creatively to market shifts.

CVS Matches Talent to Regional, Seasonal Shifts in Customer Demand

CVS noticed two trends. First, a large percentage of their older customers in colder regions migrated south for the winter. The challenge then became how to temporarily staff up stores in the south and skinny down in the north to match those customer shifts. They also noticed that older pharmacy staff were either retiring to join the winter migration south or would be open to the opportunity. Solution: The company decided to allow interested CVS employees from the north to temporarily relocate and transfer to a store in the south during the winter.

The result: CVS retains and relocates experienced talent to match regional shifts in their customer base. 

Esquire Deposition Solutions Uses Remote Work to Address Talent Shortage

Esquire Deposition Solutions also faced two related challenges–increased demand for reporters across the court system, and a shortage of court reporters to meet that demand. A talent gap that is projected to worsen with a workforce averaging 55 years old.  In response, Esquire Deposition Solutions “flexed” their traditional business model to no longer require court reporters to be physically present in the courtroom at all times. It now allows certified stenographers “who have been trained in remote court reporting by Esquire” to work in one of the company’s 35 U.S. offices instead. They will have shorter commutes and the ability to process a variety of depositions a day, depending on the legal matter’s length and complexity.

Not only does this shift address the mismatch between the supply of and demand for court reporters, but advocates see potential gains in productivity and ongoing technological innovation.  

Shake Shack Pilots Four-Day Workweek to Attract and Retain Managers

If you are an expanding restaurant chain, like Shake Shack, you can’t grow if you can’t find experienced general managers. According to company leadership, “the chain will open 26 to 40 new stores this year. But it could open 100 new stores if it could hire all the general managers it wanted.”

In response, Shake Shack decided to “flex” their five-day, 40-hour workweek business model and pilot a four-day, 40-hour workweek to attract and retain general managers with three to five years of experience. 

This shift is modeled after a similar change successfully implemented by a smaller Alabama-based chain, Aloha Hospitality. When discussing the strategic shift to a four-day workweek for managers, Aloha CEO Bob Baumhower said, “You’ve heard the phrase, ‘it takes a village,’ well in our case it takes a team. Everyone has to buy in, go the extra mile and support each other to make it work.”

That’s true for any flexible work transformation, including those above. Success ultimately requires a realignment of all aspects of an organization including culture, work processes, policies, workforce, workspace, technology, and operations. Assuming that happens, these companies will set an example for others to follow.

When businesses reimagine how, when and where work can be done, not only do they respond more nimbly to market opportunities and challenges, but they give their people what they want, which is a win for all. 

What are some other examples of businesses “flexing” their traditional business models?

Click HERE to be added to the Flex Strategy Group Newsletter and receive periodic updates and insights from Cali Williams Yost.

Fast Company: Quarterly Earnings Kill People-Based Innovation…

Do a quick search in The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal and you will find numerous articles by very smart people pronouncing that only “innovation” will lead to an economic recovery.

Yet, it’s ironic to read these articles at the same time that Hewitt releases its most recent quarterly global employee engagement survey. In the first quarter of 2010, the trend lines of companies reporting increases and declines in engagement converged and crossed. For the first time in 15 years, the companies experiencing declines far outpaced those reporting improvement. Houston, we have a problem. As Hewitt correctly states in their report,

“This highlights the growing tension between employers—many of which are struggling to stabilize their financial situation—and employees, who are showing fatigue in response to a lengthy period of stress, uncertainty and confusion brought about by the recession and their company’s actions.”


Now we could argue the point about employers are “struggling to stabilize their financial situation” when 3,000 non-financial firms hold an estimated $1.6 trillion (yes, trillion with a “T”) in cash and equivalents, but I want to focus back on one simple question:

How do companies across the globe expect to innovate on the backs of an increasingly demoralized workforce that’s stressed, overworked, undercompensated, unrecognized, lacks career opportunities, and doesn’t trust leadership?

As I said before, how do we square this circle?

Now, I’m not an expert on innovation strategy, but I’m pretty sure that it’s not, “Be sure to overwork and undercompensate your employees. Make them really afraid. And then, when they no longer trust you, put everyone in a room and let the magic begin!”

So, what’s the answer?

Let’s go back to the articles begging for more innovation written by those very smart people. What do they say?  (Click here for more)

Work+Life Flexibility “How to” in Pictures: #4 Making it real takes more than traditional policy, toolkit and training

Work+Life Flex “How to” in Pictures: #1 Don’t get stuck on innovation curve

Work+Life Flex “How to” in Pictures: #2 Change requires employee+employer partnership (some gov’t) and shift in broader cultural conversation

Work+Life Flex “How to” in Pictures: #3 Focus on fact that same flexibility keeps business open in a snowstorm, cares for aging parents (and more)

Work+Life Flexibility “How to” in Pictures: #1 Don’t get stuck on innovation curve

Work+Life Flex “How to” in Pictures: #2 Change requires employee+employer partnership (some gov’t) and shift in broader cultural conversation

Work+Life Flex “How to” in Pictures: #3 Focus on fact that same flexibility keep business open in snowstorm, cares for aging parents (and more)

Work+Life Flex “How to” in Pictures: #4 Making it real takes more than traditional policy, toolkit and training

Fast Company: Squaring the Circle…in 5 Minutes! Expected Innovation/Quality vs. Employee Fear/Distrust

For the last few days, I’ve been prepping for an upcoming panel at Columbia Business School entitled, The Post-Recession Workplace.   My message is going to be simple—the world has changed; therefore, we need to change.  I will explain the new work+life flex normal, and what individuals and organizations need to do differently to succeed.

Here’s my challenge: There’s a canyon-sized chasm between how we need to manage our work, lives, careers and businesses in a post-Recession era, and where we are.  How do you square the circle…in 5 minutes, which is the length of my introduction?

First how big is the chasm? Big. You need to look no further than The Conference Board’s 2010 CEO Survey and the 2010 Towers Watson Global Workforce Study to realize it’s huge.

On one side: Leaders want, growth, innovation, quality and customers (Conference Board)

Every year The Conference Board asks hundreds of executives, “to identify and rate their most pressing concerns.”  In 2010, executives said they were primarily focused on:

  • Sustained and steady top-line growth
  • Customer loyalty and retention
  • Profit growth
  • Corporate reputation for quality products and services
  • Stimulating innovation and creativity and enabling entrepreneurship.

On the other side: Employees are afraid, insecure, distrusting and want stability (Towers Watson)

But what about the employees who need to execute this vision of growth, customer service, innovation, and quality?  Are they ready?  How do they feel? According to the 2010 Towers Watson Global Workforce Study of over 20,000 full-time employees in 22 global markets, they are afraid, insecure, and distrustful:

  • “(The) desire for security and stability trumps everything else right now, in part because employees see security as a fast-disappearing part of the deal.”
  • “Employees understand they are solely and chiefly responsible for ensuring their long-term financial and physical health and well-being, as well as career and performance—but have serious doubts about their ability to take on these roles.
  • “Mobility is at a decade-long low point—with significant numbers of employees sacrificing the prospect of career growth for a secure job right now.”
  • “Confidence in leaders and managers is disturbingly low—particularly in terms of the interpersonal aspects of their respective roles.”

Uh, oh. Houston, we have a problem…Not a recipe for the risk and creativity necessary for innovation.  And, fear, insecurity and distrust don’t usually lead to growth and quality.

How do you bridge this gap between what employers expect and what employees are prepared to deliver? (Click here for more)

Work-Sharing Policy as Flex Alternative to Layoffs Gains Steam, BUT Implement Strategically

As long time readers know, I’ve been a loud proponent of using flexibility in the form of reduced schedules, furloughs, telecommuting, job sharing and flex scheduling to minimize layoffs since the beginning of the recession.  And since the recession started two years ago, some innovative employers have indeed incorporated this more flexible approach to managing costs and resources into their downsizing strategy.

But more employers haven’t followed their lead because there wasn’t the incentive to move beyond the knee-jerk “cut” response that is rewarded, at least in the short-term, by the market (here and here).

As the internationally recognized management expert, Jeffrey Pfeffer, pointed out in a recent Newsweek cover story, “The Case Against Layoffs,” unless your industry is disappearing, layoffs do much more harm than good.   Thankfully it looks like an incentive to seek an alternative to layoffs has arrived, and not a moment too soon as early indications are that mass layoffs may be inching up again after a brief hiatus.

According to an article in today’s USA Today entitled, “Work-share program that cuts hours vs. jobs could grow,” work-sharing legislation may expand to more than half the states by year-end and provide employers the incentive they need to think differently and more flexibly:

“Seventeen states already have programs in which employers can cut the hours of all or most employees in lieu of layoffs. The workers get jobless benefits to recover part of their lost wages.

Work-sharing lets employers avoid the costs of severance and of training new hires when the economy rebounds. For workers, it eliminates the trauma of layoffs and helps preserve morale.

The number of employers in the programs soared last year as the recession deepened and the jobless rate climbed to 10%. A record 166,000 jobs were saved in the 17 states that offer the option vs. 58,000 in 2008, according to the National Association of State Workforce Agencies…

The Gear Works of Seattle, which makes gears for wind turbines, sliced workers’ hours 20%, skirting layoffs for about 15 of 93 employees, says executive Mike Robison. Machinist Robert Foster, 38, who worked four-day weeks for 10 months, says, ‘I like it vs. the alternative.’”

And our research has confirmed that employees do prefer flexible downsizing to the alternative.  Most respondents to our nationally-representative 2009 Work+Life Fit Reality Check study said they would accept a change or reduction in schedule, or take a cut in pay to save their jobs.

Work-share legislation can provide the much-needed incentive, but for flexible downsizing to succeed it can’t be a one-off  “program.” To be a strategic lever for managing through the recession, it must be implemented, reviewed and revised as operating realities change.  Here are some important insights and resources to help the strategic implementation process taken from previous blog posts I’ve written on the subject:

As Recovery Simmers, Limit Lagging Layoffs with Flexible Downsizing (Not Just Furloughs)

One Year Later–Flexible Downsizing and Hard Choices Post-Recession, Pre-Recovery

Get Started Tips to Navigate Post-Recession, Pre-Recovery Flexible Downsizing.  Highlights of the advice include:

  1. Go back and assess where you are.  Know where you stand in the business.
  2. Once you have the facts on paper, reset the organization’s flexible response to match today’s realities.
  3. Reframe and communicate the business case behind either the continuation or discontinuation of any type of flexible downsizing in the post-recession, pre-recovery era.

Finally, to help leaders work through a cost-benefit analysis of layoffs versus a more flexible approach to downsizing, I joined with a team of work+life experts to develop a tool  entitled  “Flexible Rightsizing as a Cost-Effective Alternative to Layoffs.”

Today’s news that work-share legislation is gaining steam across the country is very welcome.  However, for organizations, leaders and employees to truly benefit from the more flexible approach to managing costs and resources it must be implemented, review and revised thoughtfully and strategically.

What do you think?  How important is this legislative incentive to encourage a more flexible alternative to job cuts?

Work+Life Fit Ah-Ha’s of “Undercover Boss”

I am not a huge follower of reality TV, though I am a fan of Oprah’s.  I sat down to watch an Oprah episode a couple of weeks ago, and she was talking about the new reality series, Undercover Boss. I almost turned it off, but I’m glad my kids stopped me.  Highlights from the series offered surprisingly important insights.  I was struck by the fortuitous relevance of the show as we make our way through this post-recession, pre-recovery period of uncertainty.

The interactions between the employees and their “undercover boss” showcased the sometimes painful disconnection between the work+life reality employees actually experience and what senior leader know or intend.  I decided to tune in when the series debuted following the Super Bowl, and wasn’t disappointed.

In the first episode, Larry O’Donnell, President & COO of Waste Management, goes undercover and poses as new front-line worker in different divisions of his organization.   Obviously, reality television is contrived by the sheer presence of a camera, but perhaps the followings insights from the show will spark reflection.  Specifically, what’s really happening on the line everyday and what needs to change so that employees and employers benefit.  Here are my takeaways:

American employees work hard…very hard. Often in difficult circumstances.   Productivity grew by 9.5% in the third quarter of 2009, the largest gain in 30 years.  But unit labor costs fell 3.6% in that same period, the largest decrease since 1948.  What this means is that in the second half of 2009, employees produced more work in fewer hours and made less money.

Undercover Boss gives you a sense of what that really looks like.  Whether sorting through a rapidly moving recycling conveyor belt, cleaning 15 port-a-johns in a day, or doing four different office management tasks at the same time, people are working very hard .  And they are often doing it while managing some sort of chronic illness.  In most cases, O’Donnell couldn’t complete the difficult tasks his employees had mastered.  He was visibly surprised and humbled, as he should have been.

Small adjustments in work+life fit reality make a big difference. So often we talk about the big, transformational changes we need to make to improve the way we work and live.  But as the undercover boss learned firsthand, tiny, easy, low-cost adjustments can do enormous good.  There were two small fixes identified by O’Donnell that would make a huge difference to the work+life fit reality of workers.

First, when he rode in the residential sanitation truck with a female driver, O’Donnell was shocked to learn that she goes to the bathroom in a can because there isn’t enough time for a bathroom stop.  At the end of the show, he’d committed to fixing that.

Second, when a worker in the recycling plant panicked and ran to make sure she didn’t clock back in even a minute late from lunch, he was appalled.  He knew this wasn’t the corporate policy, and made sure that rule was reexamined.

Yes, these two small changes, if completed, will have a big impact in terms of morale, commitment, engagement, and lower stress, but chances are they are not isolated.  O’Donnell needs to make identifying and fixing similar work+life fit related issues an ongoing priority.  They may seem insignificant from the executive suite and are easy to pass over and ignore.  Don’t.

Involve line level employees in the creating the solutions. What sounds like a great idea to fix a problem from 30,000 feet up at corporate headquarters may not make any sense on the ground.  I was glad to see that O’Donnell engaged the employees in resolving the issues he observed.  Whether determining when or how to build a bathroom break into the truck route, or how to motivate the people who clean the port-a-johns, he asked the individual employees to participate in the problem solving process.  As a result, there’s a greater likelihood the solutions will work.

Attitude is Makes a Difference. There is no doubt that times are tough today, but attitude goes a long way in determining how we feel about the way work fits into our lives.  While I am sure the employees profiled adapted their behavior for the camera, they exhibited positive attitudes in often difficult work circumstances.  You could tell that they consciously thought about how they approached their jobs.  For example:

  • A man laughs and smiles and describes his job cleaning 15 port-a-johns a day, “an adventure.”
  • A young female cancer survivor takes pride in juggling the responsibilities of one office and three generations of her family alone.
  • The garbage truck driver makes sure to stop and visit with her customers, one of whom is handicapped, along her route, and
  • The proud landfill supervisor marches tirelessly up and down the hills of garbage even though he is on dialysis three nights a week.

The influence of film crews aside, undercover boss O”Donnell was visibly moved by the integrity and dedication of these individuals.  Their attitude offers an object lesson for us all, but you have to wonder how long they can keep it up.  In fact, it turns out the gentleman who cleaned the port-a-johns with a smile had left the company for another job by the time the show aired.

The series continues for the next few weeks.  I will keep watching and sharing any new insights.  Although engineered to make the CEO look like a good guy, it’s fascinating to watch the leader become follower, and the followers become powerful teachers.   Have you been watching Undercover Boss? What’s your reaction?

Why Is U.S. Work+Life Public Policy So Weak: Entrenched Floors and Ceilings

At the end of January, the highly respected Center for American Progress and UC Hastings Center for Work Life Law published a comprehensive public policy call to action entitled, “The Three Faces of Work-Family Conflict: The Poor, the Professionals, and the Missing Middle.” The stated goal of the report is, “to persuade policymakers and the American people that sky-high levels of work-life conflict reflect not just a personal problem but also a failure of public policy to provide for all Americans.”

Before I’d opened the report and read that last sentence, I’d hoped and prayed that it would be different from other public policy treatises for change.  But, as I feared, the report held firm to the broad, comprehensive package of heavily subsidized and regulated work+life supports that researchers and public policy advocates believe represent the minimum, acceptable standard, or floor.  And, beyond more enforcement, it didn’t offer new ideas for how to increase the support of business in the development and implementation of new public initiatives. This historical lack of employer support and engagement forms a very low ceiling that limits the access to and effectiveness of rules and regulations already in place, such as FMLA, much less new ones.

We continue to bang up against the entrenched floor and ceiling.  They are the reason the U.S. is the only industrialized country without some form of paid leave or paid sick days.  We need a new path that is open to lowering the floor and raising the ceiling if we hope to make much needed progress.  The Three Faces report offers a glimpse into what that new path might look like, and it presents a powerful business case for more supports that I hadn’t heard before.   But before I get to that….

How intractable are the high floor and low ceiling?  Based on my experience, very.

Last year, I participated in a small gathering of academic, public policy and corporate representatives to discuss the current state of work+life policy. This was the first time I’d been part of such a direct exchange between these groups.

I was part of a panel discussing innovations in work+life flexibility.  As the last person up to bat at the end of a long meeting, I listened as others shared their research and proposals ever mindful that I wanted to add a new perspective to what was already covered.  I quickly realized that there are two camps: 1) academic researchers and public policy advocates and 2) those working mostly with corporations.   Each group brought very different agendas and perspectives to the table regarding what’s needed, what’s possible, and why we need to do it.

The academic researchers and public policy advocates at the meeting spoke passionately about the need for generous, publicly-subsidized child care, elder care, paid sick days, and paid leaves, as well as government mandated schedule consistency and flexibility in hours.  The rationale for this high floor of support ranged from “social justice,” “the common good,” and “the right thing to do.”

Those with a more corporate perspective spoke of business cases and bottom line considerations.  They urged caution about any new regulations or additional costs.  The rationale for this low ceiling of support focused on the burden to business and potential loss of jobs.

Good news:  all agreed something needed to be done.  Bad news: completely different ideas on what the solution looked like.

As a researcher and corporate consultant, I’m a hybrid of the two parties and an anomaly.  I decided to try to bridge that gap and move toward mutual understanding using my experience making work+life flexibility a meaningful part of an organization’s operating model and culture.

I started my speech by noting that when I first entered the work+life field, I believed top-down, flexible work arrangement policies were the answer.  But, early on, I realized that “policy alone wouldn’t be enough to make meaningful change happen.”  I continued explaining that in my experience, policies related to formal flexible work arrangements dictated the rules, but often didn’t translate into intended action because no one took the time to change the hearts and minds of those in charge of implementation up front.

When initiating broad, fundamental, costly change we need to a better job getting buy-in from all of the stakeholders, developing the business case, and explaining the underlying “why” behind the change.  By creating readiness, strategic flexibility is more widely embraced.  I closed my comments by reiterating that, “Using policy alone to drive change in how, when and where we work and manage our lives to match today’s reality will have limited impact. We need a consensus-building process that brings all of the stakeholders together to create new solutions that meet the needs of the business and the individual.”

Warning:  Land mine!  Land mine!  Too late…

Not only did I not bridge the gap with my speech, but I experienced firsthand what happens when you challenge the validity of either the entrenched floor or the ceiling.  How intense was the reaction?  Let’s just say it was as if I’d ended my comments with, “And then after dinner, I throw kittens into the fire.”  In fact, one researcher asked me if I also advocated the reversal of all child labor laws.  What?  Um, no.  Clearly, I’d stepped on a land mine.  This was not going to be easy, and it was becoming clearer why the U.S. is unable to make meaningful progress related to work+life public policy.

Undaunted, I tried valiantly to reach a common understanding.  I pointed out the strong, viable business cases within the proposals that went beyond simply “common good.”  For example, after talking with one researcher who advocated national regulation for a minimum number of hours per shift (which I knew corporations would fight and defeat), I realized that her findings proved that most scheduling in retail environments is relatively stable.  Therefore, her research could help businesses commit to more standard, predictable shifts even without regulation.  She was unmoved in her belief that better and more policy is the only answer.

New path—lower the floor, raise the ceiling

We weren’t able to lower the floor or raise the ceiling at that meeting.  And since then Federal and state governments are even more aggressively cutting budgets, overhauling the mandates we already have, and debating much-needed spending on job creation.

If we want to pass some form of work+life policy, we need to take a new path.  We need to consider lowering the floor of minimally acceptable supports if required.  And we need to raise the ceiling of business buy-in by proving the fact that helping everyone, including families, manage their work and life organizations will be better able to compete strategically in the global economy.

Some clues as to what a lower floor and higher ceiling might look like can be found in the Three Faces report.  For example:

  • Give people some slack. At minimum, what many of the poor, middle class and professional parents and elder caregivers profiled in the report need is some slack.  The vicissitudes of care giving will inevitably rear their ugly head, whether it’s a late babysitter, or a sick child.  We need to challenge the validity of unnecessarily rigid attendance keeping and shift scheduling.  Why are they in place?  How can the process be managed differently to allow for a reasonable amount of flexibility around the margins of a person’s schedule without risking job loss?
  • It’s not just mothers. The report was full of examples of fathers, elder caregivers and grandparents facing the same work+life challenges as mothers.  Organizations need to understand these issues affect a much broader part of their population than they realize.  The negative impact in terms of stress, turnover, absenteeism, distraction, and errors is not limited to an isolated group of women who have children; therefore, the cost of not offering supports is widespread.
  • How much paid leave COULD we support? Yes, five sick days and six months of paid maternity and paternity leave would be amazing, but if that is too much for the government and corporations to support in the current economic environment, what would work?  And use the following powerful business case from the report to frame a serious discussion amongst all stakeholders:  In the global economy, the lack of work+life supports puts the U.S. at a distinct competitive disadvantage between Europe with a generous package of government supported initiatives and the less developed world where work+life supports are provided by an almost unlimited amount of extremely cheap labor. Pretty compelling call to action.

Finally, reaching consensus: Workplace Flexibility 2010 is a great example of a multi-stakeholder, consensus-building process to replicate.  Years of careful effort raised the ceiling of buy-in to a legislative approach to flexibility as high as possible while maintaining an acceptable floor of support.

Can we move past our entrenched interests and expectations?  Or are we forever stuck behind the traditional high floor and low ceiling blocking meaningful work+life public policy?  How can we craft workable solutions?  What do you think?

Work+Life Fit Blog Adds Video in 2010! Annoucing “Work+Life Fit in 5 Days” Series

I’m always looking for new ways to bring to the best, most innovative, and helpful information about work+life fit and flexibility to as many people as possible. As you know, one of my guiding words in 2010 is “Reach.” This past year I dove into Twitter (@caliyost). In 2010, it’s video! As we get going, let me know what you think. And, please be patient as I experiment and learn not only how to video, but how best to use it to add value to the information you receive from the blog.

Join me tomorrow as I kick off the “Work+Life Fit in 5 Days” event!