Why Flexibility Matters to Corporate Boards and Governance Execs

As oversight of talent and human capital issues become front and center for corporate boards, I joined KPMG Board Leadership Center’s (BLC) Spring Directors Roundtable as a panelist for a discussion about “What workers want – Understanding the new employee/employer dynamic.” We explored the factors driving employees’ needs and expectations—from personal well-being and work-life fit to alignment with the company’s purpose.

Moderated by KMPG BLC Senior Advisor Stephen L. Brown, the panel also included Columbia Business School’s Todd Jick. Todd is the Reuben Mark Faculty Director of Organizational Character and Leadership and a former independent director of Claire’s Stores, Inc. Our other panelist was Eskalera co-founder and CEO Dane E. Holmes, who is also an independent director of KKR & Co., Inc. and Goldman Sachs’ former global head of human capital management.


We all agreed regardless of how directors structure their oversight of human capital management and talent strategy, it should be part of every board discussion. And as I noted, that includes work flexibility.

When people say, “I want flexibility,” they really want to be able to have some control over how, when, and where they’re going to do their jobs best. That means flexibility is not an HR policy or program that sits outside of the business. But unfortunately, that’s why a lot of organizations are stuck.

Why does this matter now and going forward? Because institutional investors and regulators are increasingly focused on ESG and human-capital metrics, all of which are directly impacted in some way by flexibility in how, when, and where we work.

Read more about our Spring Directors Roundtable in this Insight recap that was published in the July edition of KMPG’s Directors Quarterly publication and is also available at the KMPG Board Leadership Center. Additionally, you can watch webcast replay of the full Roundtable.

Flexibility was also on the agenda at the recent Society for Corporate Governance National Conference where I was a panelist for the general session, “The Modern Workplace” along with Randy Clark, CAO of Sempra Infrastructure, Geralyn Ritter, Head of External Affairs and ESG at Organon, and Adam Kokas, EVP and General Counsel of Atlas Air. We all agreed whether it’s cybersecurity to DEI to pending SEC rules regarding human capital metrics, the flexibility at the core of the modern workplace impacts a variety of management and corporate governance issues.

Lastly, the update of a popular corporate finance textbook reinforces the role strategies such as work flexibility will play in the operational, cultural, and financial success of organizations. The 14th edition of Principles of Corporate Finance (Brealey, Myers, Allen, Edmans) was released earlier this month.

Read more of my thoughts about this.

The days of flexibility as the sole responsibility of HR and thought of as nothing more than an employee perk or policy are long gone. If flexibility isn’t an all-C-suites hands-on-deck issue at your organization, you’re at risk.


Learn to Be More Flexible When $h*t Happens

Recently, I was on the Flip the Tortilla podcast with the impressive Denice Torres, and I loved our fun and insightful conversation so much that I wanted to share some highlights with you!Denice is a former Fortune 500 executive turned entrepreneur and board member.  During her time at Johnson & Johnson, she rose through the ranks to serve as President and Chief Strategy Officer, and is known for leading one of the most successful turnarounds in the company’s history.  Her podcast is thoughtfully described as, “for the underdog at heart and is about rising up, breaking through, and finding a way to achieve your most audacious goals.” The last few years have truly tested us all, and we talked about ways to better adapt to the unpredictable changes and challenges that surround us, not just in work but in our everyday lives. At the beginning of the pandemic we were all under extraordinary stress working from home, perhaps caring for and helping school children all while trying to keep up with the demands of our job. We had no choice. We had to adapt.  But, what does it mean to be adaptable?  It’s more than just a process or skills and tools, it’s a mindset.  There is a science behind the whole concept of flexibility. At the start of the pandemic, we had to be flexible. Now, as we move forward to what’s next, there is a choice.  A choice to be intentional and strategic with the way we operate our business, perform our work and manage our day-to-day lives…or not.   The companies that had already reimagined how, when and where they worked before the pandemic had the technology and communication guardrails in place that made the transition to 100% remote, as a Senior Leader we worked with said in a one-word email: “SEAMLESS”. I know what the exciting possibilities on the other side of this crisis-driven disruption can look like. I’ve seen the innovation. The engagement. The productivity. The collaboration, and the general sense of happiness and well-being.  That “spark” is what keeps me so passionate and fuels my SPARK for this work after more than two decades.  It’s what I want for every organization and every individual going forward.  I encourage you to listen and learn how to be more adaptable and intentional about work, life and leadership when as Torres say, “$h*t Happens.”Also this past week, I had the opportunity to keynote IN PERSON at the Foundation Financial Officers Group (FFOG) conference in Philadelphia!Like so many leaders, financial executives are having to navigate the “next” of work in ways simply unimaginable two years ago. It was rewarding to draw upon two-decades of experience guiding flexible work transformation to simplify the complexity and help leaders feel more confident to take action knowing,”okay, there’s a path.”Is your organization grappling with how to navigate uncharted waters?  Let’s connect on how I can help you and your team today.  Simply reach out to my colleague, Alison Batten at alison@flexstrategygroup.com today (pictured with me at the FFOG conference!) to help us customize a program for you.


What’s driving the four-day work week movement?

What’s driving the most recent global demand for four-day work weeks (a concept that seems to resurface every couple of years)? I explained in an NBC Nightly News story that aired while I was on vacation, and before four-day work week legislation was introduced in California.

First, there’s the “cry for better boundaries” around work hours that’s only been exacerbated by the pandemic, which eliminated for many any remaining physical boundary between work and life.

Then there’s the documented performance improvements. The two companies NBC profiled have had great success with the shorter work week with one CEO saying the change, “helped boost morale and the company’s bottom line.” It’s noteworthy they are smaller companies which is where four-day work weeks have historically had the most success.

Both of the companies – one an online clothing retailer and the other an RV manufacturer – not only reduced the days worked, but also the hours. Each moved to a 32-hour work week. NBC also reported “a years long trial in Iceland was so successful that now 86% of its workforce is on track to work fewer hours after finding productivity remains the same or improved.”

But, to me, the real story isn’t about working fewer hours or fewer days. It’s about a broader reimagining how, when and where your organization operates given the unique needs of your business, job and clients served. At the end of the NBC segment, they shared key points I had emphasized when they interviewed me, “Some experts caution – no one-size-fits all. It depends on the kind of job you have, the type of equipment involved and your customers calendars.”

The four-day work week is a form of time, or WHEN, flexibility that may work for some organizations and jobs but not others. Remote and hybrid work are about WHERE work is done and are feasible in some instances but not others.  It depends.  As much as Iceland, and now California may push for broad, one-size-fits-all adoption, history and experience show it’s not that cut and dry.

To determine what’s best for your organization and your team, always start by asking, “WHAT work do we need to get done” and then HOW, WHEN, and WHERE can we do it best.

“These experiments with a four-day work week deserve headlines for their innovation and impact. Such changes or pilots acknowledge what many feel –  the traditional model of work is, at least, outdated and at worst, broken.”

That’s what I said in a November 2019 LinkedIn post ,“Beyond 4-Day Work Weeks and 5-Hour Work Days”, the last time four-day workweeks made headlines. That was also pre-pandemic! As you’ll learn while reading the post, most of what I wrote then is even more relevant now.  And it will be interesting to see if this time four-day work weeks gain meaningful traction and staying power.

The pandemic accelerated the trend toward greater work flexibility that was already well underway for years. Work has fundamentally changed. Now, people know they can do their jobs differently and effectively. Flexibility across workplaces, spaces and time is both an expectation and a need.

The challenge now is also the opportunity. How will your organization execute its unique flexible “next” of work with strategic intention that benefits both the business and people?

Learn how you can help identify and close any gaps by trying the Flex+Strategy Group’s High Performance Flexibility Assessment. I encourage you and your fellow leaders to complete together to see where you are on the same page and where you are not.  I can’t wait to hear what you find!


Top 2022 Flexible Work Resolutions for Leaders

Welcome to 2022!  The year I believe leaders, line managers, teams and individual employees have the opportunity to come together and ask:

  • “What’s best about the way we worked then, pre-pandemic?”
  • “What’s best about the way we’ve been working now?”
  • “What’s the best way we can work next?”

Then execute that vision of high performance flexibility in a culture of trust and shared leadership.

As those of you who follow our work know, not only is it possible, but we’ve helped make it happen many times, before COVID and over the past almost two years since the pandemic began.

In the new year, we are excited to help others do the same by simplifying the system of change and accelerating the learning curve to achieve strategic, flexible work success!

To get the process started, here are my Top 2022 Flexible Work Resolutions for Leaders:

1. Remember Flexibility is Not New, Just Scaled. 2022 will likely be the year we move beyond crisis-driven flexibility to optimize where, when and how organizations operate going forward.  The good news is there’s a roadmap to follow, because high performance flexibility is not new.  Leaders and organizations, before and during the pandemic, have reimagined the way their organizations and people can operate. To simplify and accelerate your organization’s transformation process, look to their path for guidance. Don’t reinvent the wheel.

2. Flexibility Must Work for People and the Business. Flexibility is NOT a one-size-fits-all policy, program or initiative. High performance flexibility is a process-based way of operating.  It involves the way people plan, coordinate and execute the delivery of goods and services, while managing their lives.  That requires giving teams and individual employees the trust and freedom to answer the question “What do WE need to do, and where, when and how do WE do it best?” guided by flexible work guardrails they’ve set together.

3. It’s Not Just WHERE We Work, but HOW and WHEN.  If high performance flexibility is a digitally-enabled way of operating across workplaces, spaces and time, then 2022 is the year we need to move beyond “hybrid” to describe the model we are trying to achieve. The pandemic taught us work is not organized around “where we go,” but “what we do.” Once the “what” is defined, then “where, when and how do we do that work best” naturally follows. While “place” is still an important enabler of work, “hybrid” is too place-based. A flexible operating model also encompasses HOW we use technology to communicate and collaborate, WHEN we work and the pace at which we perform.  It’s not just where, but also when and how.

4. Give Managers, Teams AND People the Skills and Tools to Optimize Flexibility.  Gaps emerged during the pandemic—people reported they “love the flexibility” but “struggle with boundaries around their work and life.” Employees say their productivity has been the “same or higher” while managers aren’t so sure.  Not surprising because flexibility was executed, practically overnight, in response to a crisis.  There was no time to plan or introduce the skills and tools leaders, teams and individuals needed to efficiently and effectively execute work, and manage life, in a flexible, dynamic way. Train managers, teams and individuals and let them actively experiment with the new skills and tools they need to succeed working flexibly.

5.  Align Leadership Behind “What is High Performance Flexibility and Why It Matters” Then Cascade. To achieve the other four Flexible Work Resolutions in 2022, leadership at all levels must first be able to answer these three questions: What is high performance flexibility in our organization? What does it look like in action?  Why does it matter?  Then ensure the “what” and “why” they define doesn’t get stuck at the top. Cascade it throughout the organization so everyone is aligned–managers, teams and individuals—as they reimagine and optimize how, when and where they work in 2022.


Coronavirus Could Change How, When and Where We Work

This week, the coronavirus (or COVID-19) took a more serious turn in the U.S. with warnings that it could very well impact how, when, and where we work:

“Disruption to everyday life may be severe,” Nancy Messonnier, director of the CDC’s National Center for Immunization and Respiratory Diseases, cautioned at a news conference Tuesday. “Schools could be closed, mass public gatherings suspended, and businesses forced to have employees work remotely.”

The global spread of the virus may be a moment that reveals whether employers are ready to respond rapidly to unexpected workplace changes. Business travel could decrease or come to a full stop. More employees may need to work outside of local “business hours” and use video conferencing to operate across time zones. And, if it gets bad enough, many could indeed be asked, or request, to work remotely.

Are organizations ready? Chances are probably not. And, for those open to rethinking how the work would get done, are they ready for the inevitable post-crisis question, “Why don’t we do this all the time?”

How do you prepare your organization to not only flexibly respond to this potential disruption but also to use it as an opportunity to re-imagine work broadly?

Here are five steps to get started: 

  • Acknowledge the possibility that all or part of your workforce may need to work remotely. Hoping and praying it doesn’t happen, or simply ignoring it, is not a strategy. Neither is handing everyone a laptop and saying “go work someplace else” on the day they expand wide-scale quarantines. Plan as if the only way to remain operational will be for as many employees as possible to work remotely. Gather a cross-functional team together now that includes business line leaders, IT, HR, Communications, and Facilities to start to plan for different scenarios and optimize execution should circumstances require a rapid response.
  • Map out jobs and tasks that could be affected. Note which roles and duties: 1) Can be done, even partially, without a physical presence in the workplace, 2) Cannot be done, even somewhat, outside of the physical office and 3) Not sure. Challenge any potentially inaccurate default assumptions about specific jobs you may have thought couldn’t be done remotely. And for those in the “not sure” column, be willing to experiment. For example, for years, I’ve been told, “administrative assistants can’t work flexibly.” And, for years, I’ve worked with teams of administrative assistants to prove that is not true. Yes, certain tasks they complete require physical presence, but those can be planned for. The majority of their tasks can happen effectively outside of the traditional model of work AND benefit the business.
  • Audit available IT hardware and software and close any gaps in access and adoption.  Assess the comfort level with using specific applications, such as video conferencing and other collaboration/communication platforms. Where you find gaps, provide training and opportunities for practice before people need to use them. Real-time mastery is not optimal and is inefficient. Identify devices owned by the organization that people could use and clarify acceptable “bring your own” phone and laptop options. Determine if there are any data security issues to consider and how best to address them beforehand.
  • Set up a communications protocol in advance that outlines: how to reach everybody (e.g., all contact information in one place, primary communication channels clarified—email, IM, Slack, etc.); how employees are expected to respond to customers; and how and when teams will coordinate and meet.  
  • Identify ways to measure performance during a flexible response to the coronavirus that could inform broader change. After the flexible response period is over, this data will allow you to reflect on what worked, what didn’t, and why. The data will also prepare you in advance to answer the inevitable question once the crisis has passed, “Why don’t we do this all the time?” Depending upon the outcomes, you may decide to continue certain aspects of the flexible response permanently. For example, perhaps you cut business travel by 25% and substituted video conferencing. You determine afterward that about 80% of those meetings were equally as effective virtually. Therefore, a 20% decrease in business travel will continue, but this time as part of the organization’s sustainability strategy to cut carbon emissions.   

An unpredictable challenge like the coronavirus can be disruptive and confusing; however, it’s also an opportunity to proactively experiment with new ways of working. This can ultimately position the organization for future success after the crisis is over. Approach the experience as an opportunity to re-imagine how, when, and where work can be done differently. Something every organization should be doing anyway.

And if you plan and nothing happens? Then, at minimum, you have an organized, flexible work disaster response ready the next time there’s a challenge to operational continuity, which chances are, there will be!

Does your organization have a strategic response ready to implement? If yes, what does that plan entail? If not, why?


The Hour of Reckoning: Leadership and the Willingness to Reimagine the Way People Can Work (or Not)

My husband, Andy, and I kicked off the new year by co-presenting to 25 college students from our alma mater, Bucknell University, who participated in a week-long leadership intensive over their January break.

This was a hand-picked group of impressive, motivated young people.  All had to apply for acceptance into the program, and most were from the school’s Management College.

The recently-retired business school dean and former Fortune 500 CEO who taught the class asked Andy and me to speak about our leadership experiences and philosophies because we have taken two very different career paths.

Andy’s has been more traditional and corporate.  Mine, less conventional, and more entrepreneurial.  The instructor also thought it would be insightful for the group to hear from a couple that has supported each other’s professional pursuits while managing our ever-changing personal responsibilities and interests.

It’s important to emphasize a couple of points:

  • This was a leadership class.  It was not a discussion about reimagining the way work is done or how to flexibly manage your work+life fit, although the students knew that’s my area of expertise from my bio.
  • This was a diverse group of students, with men and women equally represented, and
  • These are young adults who voluntarily cut their winter break short to participate in a rigorous leadership program led by a former business school dean and Fortune 500 CEO.  They are by no means “slackers.”

Honestly, Andy and I weren’t sure what the group would want to know. Would they be more interested in Andy’s corporate career path or how I changed lanes from commercial banking to being an entrepreneur, author, and workplace strategist? Would the men direct more of their questions to Andy, and the women to me?  What actually happened surprised us and is an urgent “heads up” for senior leaders who want to attract, retain, and develop this next generation of top talent.

The questions were evenly split between us and covered a range of challenges and opportunities we each faced throughout our careers.  But what struck us both were the number of questions from the men in the room about how, when and where they would be able to do their jobs and find “balance” (which of course was the perfect opening for me to share the wisdom and power of work+life “fit” because there is no “balance” which they loved!).

Their questions weren’t about working less or not as hard. These students are clearly willing to give their all to future employers. Their questions reflected a sense that, in many cases, the rigid, traditional model of work was obsolete and needed to be modernized.

They wanted to understand how they, as future leaders, could encourage and contribute to the process of reimagining work.  They valued professional success and were realistic about the level of effort required to achieve it, but they also valued personal well-being.  They saw both as mutually-reinforcing, not mutually exclusive.

Again, this was mostly from the male students.  What their curiosity and passion confirmed to me is we’ve finally reached the hour of reckoning.

Leaders can no longer ignore the strategic imperative to build a culture in which everyone, including this next generation, knows how to flexibly leverage time and tech tools, place, and workspace, as well as process and pace to achieve the goals of the business, get the job done and manage life.

Unfortunately, too often leaders dismiss any challenge to the traditional work model as, “Young people just don’t want to work hard” when, for most, it’s just the opposite. They want to explore how to work differently, but they need guidance.  Leaders that seize the opportunity potentially leave new levels of innovation, productivity, and engagement as their legacy.

As one young man asked, “What do you say to senior leaders to get them to understand how important it is to rethink work?”

My answer, “First, I help them link high performance flexibility and positioning their business for success today…and tomorrow.  Second, I show leaders how to marry the traditional strengths of their organization with new ways of working. But, ultimately, my message is simple—either you adapt, or you aren’t going to make it. And after speaking with all of you, I am even more certain of that.”

The hour of reckoning has indeed arrived.  How is your organization responding when this next generation challenges the traditional ways work has always been done?  Are you dismissing them as “slackers,” or are you listening? Are you using their questions to fuel innovation that will position your organization to thrive now and in the future, or are you doubling down on “business as usual”?


A/B Teams: Flex Schedules and Locations When Remote Work Isn’t an Option

How do you implement a flexible work crisis plan that keeps everyone healthy, safe and as productive as possible during a very challenging period when remote work isn’t an option for certain jobs or organizations?

“Flexing” where people work is getting the most airtime and attention, but flexing when and how people can work together is another option to consider. 

The key is to social distance by controlling the number of people in one space at one time while maintaining at least some level of operating continuity.

One way to do this is to divide employees deemed ESSENTIAL to onsite operations and cannot work remotely into A and B teams. Schedule the teams to limit the exposure of the whole group to the coronavirus and then ensure the workspaces are cleaned daily. Here’s an example:

  • Week 1—Team A: Monday, Wednesday, Friday
  • Week 1—Team B: Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday (Add Sat if want to add productivity hours, if needed)
  • Week 2—Team A: Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday
  • Week 2—Team B: Monday, Wednesday, Friday

Employees must stick to the teams to which they are assigned to limit exposure. That’s a mandate. To support employees with school-age children at home, divide parents across teams and allow them to shift their start and stop schedules to coordinate caregiving needs.

Productivity—Maintaining as Much as Realistically Possible in a Crisis Period

The reality is when a team that is essential to onsite operations is divided in half and works three-day weeks, productivity will decrease approximately 40 percent per week if employees typically work an eight-hour day.

To address this, some organizations have added Saturdays and/or extended workdays to 10 hours to make up for lost productivity. This still totals 30 hours a week. For this to work, leaders need to make peace with the fact that by switching to A and B teams they’ve kept their people safe while maintaining as much productivity as possible during the crisis period.

Keeping Everyone “Whole” 

How will pay be affected for those A and B team members? Some organizations have found creative ways for employees to use the extra hours to complete tasks that can be done remotely such as updating procedures, cross-training, and continuing education.

Some employers, that are able, are continuing to pay full salaries during this crisis regardless of the hours worked, while others that can’t are decreasing pay proportionally to avoid layoffs and to continue providing at least a percentage of an employee’s salary. (Hopefully, legislation currently under consideration will help with this gap).

There Are More Options than Remote Working 

Everyone is doing their best to rapidly reimagine the way work is done under very difficult, rapidly changing circumstances. There is no right or wrong answer.

It’s about what works best right now; however, the use of A and B teams to creatively schedule when and how your people work is another possible way of continuing to operate if remote work isn’t possible for certain jobs or organizations.

Caution: Some organizations may be using A and B teams as their primary flexible work crisis strategy, even though, if you look closely many of the jobs do not require onsite presence and could be done remotely, at least in part. The reason seems to be that on some level it’s easier than switching everyone over to working remotely. The problem with that is:

  • You are unnecessarily exposing people who don’t need to be exposed to each other and
  • You run the risk that should even more restrictive limits on gatherings be issued, you will be caught scrambling to get remote work up and running under even more challenging circumstances.

Have you or your organization implemented A and B teams as part of your flexible work crisis management strategy? What did you do? How is it working?


The Floodgates Fear

Recently, I met with a forward-thinking leader who recognized his organization had reached a tipping point.  He knew the current approach to flexibility in the way work is done was too random, inconsistent, and organic.  It needed to be more coordinated and strategic to address a variety of business challenges, including attracting and retaining the diverse, knowledgeable talent required to run the business.

But, like clockwork, he asked the following three questions in quick succession:

“What if it sets a precedent?”
“How will I know if people are working if I can’t see them?”
“What if they abuse it?”

He had officially hit “The Floodgates Fear,” a fear so deep and pervasive that it has its own name (and is preceded by a “The”).

Simply put leaders are afraid that if they officially and publicly encourage employees to leverage work flexibility, technology, and workspace to do their jobs and manage their lives, this will be the result:

No one will show up for work.  Leaders worry they will be the only ones standing in a room full of empty desks answering all of the emails, fielding all of the calls, attending all of the meetings –alone.

When I share this picture with groups of leaders, they laugh and nod their heads in recognition.  That is EXACTLY what they are afraid of.

So, the question is how do they avoid getting paralyzed by The Floodgates Fear and inspire the organization to make the shift to high performance flexibility?

First, it’s important to acknowledge this fear is real and valid.  Too often I see brave leaders who articulate what many of their peers are too afraid to say out loud only to be labeled “naysayers” or “resisters.”  Quite the opposite.  They know they are stuck at a roadblock.  They are looking for a roadmap that gets them to the other side of the fear.

For a sense of what that roadmap to the other side of fear looks like consider my responses to the questions the leader I recently met with posed:

Fear #1: “What if it sets a precedent?”  
Implementing a culture of shared accountability, trust and leadership that is the basis ofhigh performance flexibility will set a precedent. The precedent will be that everyone has the language, mindset, skills, and tools to effectively answer the question, “what do we need to get done, and how, when, and where do we do it best?”  That means making an investment in the training, practice, and resources necessary for everyone to master this new, more intentional way of working.

Fear #2: “How will I know if they are working if I can’t see them?”
The simple answer is, “how did you know they were working when they came into the same physical space at the same time every day? It should be no different.”

As is often the case, the leader I was speaking with responded with a blank stare, because the truth is in most organizations metrics of performance and productivity are not very clear.

One of the most powerful impacts of a culture-shift to high performance flexibility is suddenly people start to ask, “What matters to our business?  How are we measuring it?”  As those parameters become more defined, and supervisors no longer rely on presence as a proxy for performance, the fear begins to recede.

Fear #3: “What if they abuse it?” 
Yes, a small minority of people may lack the competencies to operate effectively in a flexible work culture.  However, with the right training, support, and guidance, the majority will give you more.  Research, and more than two decades of experience, have proven this to be true again and again.

If there is “abuse,” upon closer inspection, it’s usually a general performance issue and not flexibility issue. Greater latitude to determine how, when and where work is done can cause a deeper problem to become more visible and it should be dealt with accordingly.

If you are a leader who wants to unlock the performance and engagement at the core of work flexibility, technology and workspace but you find yourself stuck behind The Floodgates Fear, you are not alone. There’s a roadmap to the other side of that roadblock. It’s a matter of training, practice, measurement and managing to the majority who will thrive.

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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!

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Resolve the Clash Between Flexibility and Traditional Work Practices

Does it feel like the clash between the flexible work expectations of younger employees and your organization’s traditional work practices has escalated? If it does, you are not alone. Even employers on every “best of” work flexibility list face the challenge.

Recently, I had lunch with a leader from a “best of” company. At one point, he confessed with nervous laughter:

“You know we are in busy season and I can tell you right now there are partners in this firm who still require junior level employees to show up and physically sit together every day in a conference room while ordering food from paper menus. Why? Because that’s what you do in busy season.”

Immediately, I imagined a group of confused, frustrated junior-level employees sitting around the same table, day in and day out, legitimately wondering, “Why can’t we do this remotely? We would be working on the same system we’re logged onto in the conference room. And why aren’t we ordering food from GrubHub?!”

I also imagined the partner in charge of the engagement. Hearing about the team’s frustration, shaking her head and sighing to her peers, “Flexibility is fine, but this is busy season. The work is complex and requires a high degree of manager supervision. It’s what the client expects, and it’s what we have to do to get the best results.” But is it?

To resolve this conflict, you can’t stop at the level of flexible work policy, programs, and toolkits. It requires a more in-depth cultural shift where the generations learn to come out of their respective corners and explore ways work could be done better, smarter, and more flexibly.

That doesn’t mean throwing the baby-out-with-the bath-water. Everyone meets in the middle and follows an organized process of experimentation that, ultimately, becomes a part of everyday planning.

As a result, certain legacy work practices continue because everyone agrees they are the best approach, but they are married with new, more flexible ways of working, using technology and workspace. It’s what multigenerational expert, Lindsey Pollock, calls a “remix,” in her new book, The Remix: How to Lead and Succeed in the Multigenerational Workplace.

For the team stuck in the conference room during busy season with paper menus, that “remix” could look like:

  • An acknowledgment that this particular engagement does include more complex tasks that require hands-on manager oversight and more immediate real-time collaboration and information sharing. At the moment, the technology to replicate that degree of oversight and coordination either doesn’t exist or everyone hasn’t adequately mastered it. Therefore, to complete those tasks, the team agrees it makes sense to work together in the same location at the same time.
  • An agreement that the team could experiment with doing the more straightforward, less complicated aspects of the engagement flexibly. Each team member will plan, how, when, and where they will complete those tasks, optimally a week in advance. This gives managers time to review and adjust the proposed flexibility based on the engagement’s real-time progress.
  • A recognition that everyone—the partner, managers, and the engagement team–needs to be even more intentional and organized with their planning, as well as willing to recalibrate their flexibility to respond to unexpected shifts in the engagement’s progress.

At the end of busy season, review the results of the experiment. Revise based on outcomes. Rinse. Repeat.

What’s happening in your workplace? Has the clash between the flexible work expectations of younger employees and your organization’s traditional work practices escalated? If you need to “remix,” what could that look like?

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