Workplace flexibility should be among the tools HR and organizations use to implement innovative talent and management strategies that bring out the best in their people, Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) President and CEO Henry G. “Hank” Jackson said during a May 22, 2012, congressional briefing in Washington, D.C.
Employers that don’t utilize it, he said, will find themselves at a disadvantage in the global marketplace.
Kathleen Christensen of the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation moderated the 90-minute briefing, “Creating a 21st Century Workplace for a 21st Century Workforce,” on Capitol Hill. She pointed to a “poverty of imagination” among many U.S. employers when it comes to workplace flexibility.
“They cannot imagine doing work differently than the way it has been done for the last 100 years,” she said in prepared remarks. “This is the mind-set that needs to change for the benefit of our nation’s workforce, the companies that employ them and for the good of the U.S. economy.”
Jackson noted that using workflex options that fit each employer’s needs is a “real opportunity for us to make a difference in redesigning the U.S. workforce in the years to come” and to respond to a workplace that is undergoing a transformation away from the 9-to-5 workday.
“I don’t see this as an option,” he said. “We can either plan it and go into it with our eyes open or it’s going to be forced on us … simply because we don’t have enough workers to accomplish the task,” given the shortage of skilled workers and the legions of Baby Boomers who are retiring.
Research Confirms Value
He cited research that included a global survey of nearly 500 C-suite executives that SHRM and The Economist commissioned in 2010. It found that attracting, retaining and rewarding top talent will be the biggest HR challenge in the coming decade. Jackson then pointed to an August 2010 survey of 449 SHRM members that found that nearly 60 percent indicated that workplace flexibility is the best tactic for meeting that challenge.
Jackson emphasized that the government should encourage—not mandate—paid leave and other flexible work options, and he said that it should update current labor laws that have not kept pace with the workplace’s evolving needs.
The Family and Medical Leave Act of 1993 is outdated, he said, citing one example.
“It’s certainly an excellent idea,” he said of the legislation, “but we believe it can be tweaked substantially to assist how the workplace functions today.” In its present form, he said, it attempts to micromanage every aspect of the leave process, creating an atmosphere that discourages flexibility and innovation.
Educating employers is the key to making workplace flexibility commonplace at organizations, Jackson said during a question-and-answer session. He pointed to a set of principles released by SHRM in 2009 that offers a guide to developing a workplace flexibility policy.
Jackson highlighted the strategic partnership that SHRM formed with the Families & Work Institute in 2011 and their joint initiative, When Work Works, to bring research on workplace flexibility “into both the community and business practices … to translate research into action.”
That includes the Alfred P. Sloan Award for Excellence in Workplace Effectiveness and Flexibility—part of the When Work Works initiative—that recognizes model employers across the nation for innovative and effective workplace practices.
John C. Parry Jr., CEO of Solix Inc., which has won the Sloan award every year from 2007 through 2011, also spoke at the briefing. His domestic business process outsourcing firm, based in New Jersey, employs more than 800 people. The average age of employees is 45; nearly half of its employees are women.
Solix started looking at workplace flex options in 2004 as a way to deal with its 5 percent absenteeism rate and 15 percent turnover rate among its then-200 employees. Something had to be done, Parry said, because it takes six to 12 months for a new hire to become competent to handle the complex, team-based workload.
Its foray into flexibility started with a two-week pilot project with 20 employees working entirely from home. Based on feedback from the volunteers, Solix made changes to its initiative by offering flex options, such as compressed workweeks for employees who wanted more family time but needed the structure of the office.
Next, Solix eliminated its absence policies. Its other flex options include flexible hours, telecommuting, bereavement leave, phased retirement, and training and development on and off site. It allows employees to take a sabbatical without jeopardizing seniority; this policy was initiated when it became apparent to Parry that it would lose a valued employee who needed to be out of the country for six months to care for her parents.
Since the company implemented workplace flexibility, absenteeism dropped to below half a percent. Annual turnover is less than 4 percent, according to Parry.
‘Just Ask the People’
“It’s always best to just ask the people ‘what will make you more productive,’” he advised employers.
However, it’s not enough simply to make flexibility options available. The policy must be made clear, he said, noting that in the early days of Solix’s workflex policy, some middle managers believed wrongly that Mondays and Fridays did not qualify as telecommuting days.
“It really doesn’t matter where you do the work from if you trust your people,” Parry said. “We hire adults, so we should trust them, but it didn’t always work that way.”
Flexibility must be modeled by those at the top of the organization, he said, noting that “people look at what you do, not at what you say.”
Distractions such as family responsibilities, or “noise in the system,” pose the biggest obstacle to a company’s competitiveness, he said. By offering workplace flexibility, “We get rid of all that noise in the system.”
Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News.
Workers Turn Up Flexibility for the Summer, HR News, May 2012
SHRM: Workplace Flexibility Is ‘Business Imperative,’ HR News, October 2011
When Work Works, Flex at a Glance, SHRM and Families & Work Institute
Workplace Flexibility Resource Page, SHRM Online Benefits Discipline