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Thought Leaders Call Flexible Workplaces 'Strategic Imperative'

By Stephen Miller  2/2/2011
Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff

Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, was among representatives of prominent recipients of the Alfred P. Sloan Awards for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility who shared their experiences "moving work forward" during a Feb. 1, 2011, event in Washington, D.C. The event, sponsored by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Families and Work Institute (FWI), announced the launch of a SHRM/FWI partnership to transform the way organizations view and adopt workplace flexibility (see Workplace Flexibility Partnership to 'Move Work Forward').

Mullen and business thought leaders discussed why flexibility is important to making their organizations successful, and why adapting to the changing workforce is necessary for greater productivity and employee retention.

"The 21st century workforce bears little resemblance to the 20th century's," said Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of FWI, which has sponsored the Sloan Awards as part of the When Work Works initiative (going forward, the awards will be a project of the SHRM/FWI Moving Work Forward partnership). "It's not our mothers' or our fathers' workplace, and neither is the business environment in which companies operate. Change is not optional; change is mandatory, and we must adapt to the realities in today's business world."

Admiral Mullen: Alleviating Stress on Military Families

"People are our best resource, and we have moved to a much broader and deeper understanding of what that means," said Mullen. "Military families have been through an extraordinarily difficult time," he noted, with one parent often away for extended periods while their spouse holds a full-time job. Even with both parents stateside, military careers have involved strenuous (and often inflexible) hours. "The strains this imposes on families has led many star performers to abandon their military careers at a time when the nation simply can't afford to lose their talent and experience," Mullen observed.

To confront this loss of talent, Mullen has championed workplace flexibility in the armed forces. "Those young captains, 25 to 35 years old, if we keep the right ones we're going to be fine for decades to come," he observed. Flexibility "is an imperative for us. It is a strategic imperative for our country."

Sharon Allen: From 'Ladder' to 'Lattice'

That sentiment was echoed by Sharon Allen, chair of the board of Deloitte LLP, the largest professional services firm in the U.S. "Traditional family structures have changed, and workplace flexibility must be a business imperative," she said, noting that only one in six U.S. families has a mother at home full time.

At Deloitte, she explained, career structures have been redesigned to replace the traditional single-track "corporate career ladder" into management with a "corporate career lattice" that allows employees to move forward in a number of possible directions, with different time constraints, during different stages of their careers. Since these efforts were launched, more than 90 percent of the firm's employees have indicated they feel more in control over their careers and their time, and that they are able to be more productive.

Stereotypes aside, "It isn't just women who wanted more flexibility," she observed, "men did too."

G. Brint Ryan: Mid-sized Solutions

Flexibility isn't an imperative only for the Fortune 100, either. G. Brint Ryan, CEO of Ryan LLC., a Dallas-based tax service firm with some 800 employees, related how over the years many of the company’s "shining stars" would come into his office and tell him how much they loved their jobs and the company but then, to his chagrin, tender their resignations, citing the long and inflexible office hours. In 2007, that brought Ryan to the realization that "hours don't matter; results do," and under his leadership the firm has put in place flexible arrangements that give employees control over their time so that "if you meet financial results, you determine what's best for you."

Of course, work still must get done and tax time can't be put off, so the firm developed a dashboard that allows employees to view their performance metrics from anywhere, at any point in time. "This focus on measuring results crystalizes thinking and allows people to concentrate on what's important," Ryan noted.

While some partners "were scared to death" and naysayers predicted that no one would show up for work, the opposite occurred—"productivity is up, and so is retention," Ryan reported. Turnover has fallen from nearly 23 percent to 13 percent, a dramatic decrease, while "our client scores are the highest they've ever been. We've seen our brand increase and we've become much more competitive and focused."

In fact, 2009 saw record profits for the firm "despite the Great Recession," as did 2010.

Flexibility should not be viewed as an employee perk, Ryan stressed. "It's not like pizza on Fridays. It's an incredibly powerful business strategy. Without it, I don't think we'd be where we are today." 

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'Flexibility isn't a perk like pizza on Fridays;
it's an incredibly powerful business strategy.'
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Ted Childs: A Global Competitiveness Tool

U.S. businesses are at a crossroads, and success in the global economy requires "the pursuit of game-changing outcomes," said Ted Childs, principle of Ted Childs LLC. In 2006 Childs retired from IBM after a 39-year career, the last 15 as the executive responsible for the company’s Global Workforce Diversity programs. He now leads his own firm of workforce diversity strategists.

"Flexibility is not an accommodation or favor, it's the lynchpin," Childs observed. "People have two things to give: their talent and their time. Flexibility is the equalizer that allows the talent we develop to deliver superior performance. This SHRM/FWI partnership is a response to America's call for help. HR is in a position to provide the advice that will help leaders to win."

Top and Middle Management Support

A vital first step is to bring top management onboard as flexible workplace champions. As Childs and others noted, a primary goal of the new partnership is to provide the hard facts that reveal how flexible options, effectively implemented, can increase not just morale and engagement but productivity and return on investment.

A next step, no less important, is getting middle management onboard. "Incorporating flexibility goals into the managers' rewards system is a way to drive change," advised Allen. Added Ryan, "Our managers were initially critical. It took a lot of communication and reinforcement to show that this was a winning strategy."

"If you don't help middle managers address their own issues, then [managing employees with flexible options] just seems like more work for them," observed FWI's Galinsky.

From the audience, Kathleen Christensen, who founded and directs the Workplace, Work Force and Working Families program at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, shared that manager reticence "isn't a malevolent attitude toward flexibility; often it's just a lack of imagination."

No one solution is going to be right for all workplaces, concluded Childs. "Listen to your employees and what they're telling you works best for them," he recommended. "Don't make assumptions about what can't be done."

Stephen Miller is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

Quick Links:

SHRM Online Benefits Discipline

SHRM Online Workplace Flexibility Resource Page

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