The Business Case for Flex

Survey research at one company shows that flexible work program participants are the most loyal, the most committed and the hardest working.

By Alison Quirk Apr 1, 2012
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April CoverAt State Street Corp., a multinational financial services provider, we view flexible work arrangements as a strategic tool for achieving business objectives and employee engagement.

In 2009, we created an executive committee to strengthen our ability to recruit and retain top talent. One of the findings: the necessity of having tools and resources that consistently support better work/life balance for employees through flexible work arrangements. As a result, after several years of offering informal, ad hoc, alternate work arrangements, we implemented a formal Flex Work Program, known simply as Flex. In today's fast-paced, 24/7 workplace, professionals have too much to do in their work and personal lives—and look for solutions to ease that pressure.

In a 2011 survey by Work+Life Fit Inc., for example, one-third of the 637 full-time employed respondents to a telephone survey said they plan to look for a new job either in or outside their organizations. Two-thirds said they want greater flexibility, including:

  • Flexible hours.
  • The ability to work remotely.
  • The option to work a reduced schedule for less money.

Other studies have shown that an employee's loyalty and intent to stay with an organization increase when flexible work arrangements are available.

At State Street, the results we've seen from Flex support these findings. We have heightened employee satisfaction, productivity and operating efficiencies and lowered turnover in virtually all locations where Flex has been implemented.

Furthermore, a companywide internal employee engagement survey in October 2010 revealed that employees with some type of flexibility in their schedules are the most loyal, the most committed—and the hardest working. Employees with the most favorable perceptions of Flex scored 20 percent higher, on average, across a variety of engagement indicators, including emotional and rational commitment, intent to stay and discretionary effort.

Natural Environment

As a company with more than 29,000 employees in 26 countries, we emphasize our corporate value "Stronger Together." It supports collaboration across geographies and business units. Hence, we have long had people working with each other, but not necessarily side by side.

Even before we implemented a formal flexible work program, many managers were regularly connecting with employees in other locations and collaborating globally on projects. Time-zone differences required managers to be flexible about when and how they worked.

Employees' appetite for flexible work arrangements grew so much that by 2009, we needed a standard approach that would permit us to look at the idea from a strategic business perspective. At first, we provided a framework, giving employees a method for requesting that managers create alternate work structures and giving managers a means to evaluate requests. Flex evolved from employee-initiated arrangements into today's manager-initiated program.

The program needed to be more than just an "add on," so we built Flex around partnerships between our human resource, information technology, real estate and business strategy teams. Besides a dedicated staff of two employees, Flex relies on alliances with stakeholders through our Flex Working Group. This group consists of 12 work streams ranging from information technology and finance to communications and HR. This structure gives my HR team the ability to gauge how Flex impacts different constituencies.

Employees with formal flexible work arrangements reported that they are driving 140,000 fewer miles each week.

A toolkit helps managers assess roles to determine what flexible work arrangements may be feasible for each individual from a business perspective. The managers can then proactively discuss Flex options with team members to implement a strategic and transparent program.

So far, feedback gathered during the last year about our manager-initiated flexible work arrangements has been positive. Elements once perceived as barriers have been broken. Flex is addressing the evolving needs of our workforce and business strategy, while keeping clients satisfied and operations running smoothly.

Five Options

Flex components include employee engagement, governance, technology and real estate.

Our HR policies define five options that give employees flexibility on when, how and where they work:

Flex time. Altering start or finish times while maintaining the same number of regularly scheduled hours.

Compressed schedule. Extending the start and finish times to compress scheduled hours into fewer days.

Reduced hours. Working fewer than the standard work hours.

Flex place. Routinely working away from the assigned office, including working from home, a remote office or a satellite location.

Job share. Sharing a position with another employee on an ongoing basis.

Of course, Flex isn't a one-size-fits-all program that works the same way in all locations globally or in each business area. We have HR policies that guide managers in evaluating job and employee suitability for Flex. Using an array of online and other HR training support, managers evaluate the compatibility between roles and these work options. Considerations include the level of client interaction, the need for physical proximity to co-workers and local laws.

Business-unit managers assess legal risks associated with each function and determine whether that function is appropriate for options like Flex place. The manager must address risks such as information security or privacy.

While HR policies are at the core of Flex, technology serves as its engine. We have a roster of tools to enable em­ployees to work remotely. Currently, employees have remote access to their desktops and business applications, and can connect with each other from their homes or other offices using instant messaging, desktop sharing and audio-video conferencing.

Real estate is another component. We are looking at innovative ways of setting up our physical footprint with the goal of arranging work around groups instead of around buildings and to support the mobile workforce we employ. The manager-initiated flex program is now enabling us to track and measure flexible work arrangements by type and location. This information is proving valuable for our global realty function by helping to inform our future occupancy needs. Specifically, metrics around the types of flexible work used assists us in planning office configuration as well as deployment of flex centers and hoteling space globally. State Street currently uses single-occupant offices, shared office spaces, Flex centers and Flex pods—seating clusters in multiple buildings to accommodate employees in the office only a few days a week.

Spreading the Word

The case for Flex could begin and end with the increased employee satisfaction we are seeing. Almost every week, my HR team and I hear from managers about the "spillover" effects. A few examples:

  • An associate is studying for a master's in business administration, thanks to the time he saves working from home.
  • A managing director finds that scheduling flexibility enables him to make evening appointments and run errands after work rather than having to use vacation time.
  • A senior associate meets her growing client demand with less commuting time, while spending more time with her family.

Supervising managers note that these employees seem more enthusiastic, more creative in problem-solving and more engaged than before Flex. Stories like these help build support for Flex.

We have more-formal methods for spreading the word: Our Chairman, President and Chief Executive Officer Jay Hooley promotes Flex at quarterly all-staff town hall meetings, and senior managers hold similar meetings. We have Flex information kiosks, screen savers describing Flex and a full complement of resources on the company intranet. The toolkit includes templates for managers to use in coordinating and communicating the program.

Although we still have some employee-initiated working arrangements, our long-term plansdepend on the manager-initiated component. Managers now think of Flex as a business tool, not just a way to make employees happier. They use it to enhance team efficiency, optimize workflow and make better use of physical space. Our ability to showcase Flex gives State Street a powerful recruitment tool.

Powerful Case

Flex is gaining traction and support in every department where it has been implemented. A companywide engagement survey in October 2010 found that 67 percent of respondents had participated in some type of flexible work. An equal number of males and females at all levels have participated.

Managers report operating efficiencies. Productivity is up due to lower absenteeism and the fact that reduced travel time lets employees spend more time on job-related tasks.

Flex options help global teams align schedules across time zones. Last winter, we had severe snowstorms in Boston, where we have a significant employee population. Many worked seamlessly from home because we had the tools. And, following the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, employees working from home helped keep local operations running.

Flex generates environmental benefits. As of December 2011, employees with formal flexible work arrangements reported that they are driving 140,000 fewer miles each week.

There is no doubt that metrics make a powerful business case for Flex. But in my view, the human side is equally powerful.

Vice President Yves Baril uses Flex to inspire junior employees and show them how they can rise through the ranks while still balancing work life with personal life. Baril takes pleasure in seeing Flex arrangements work out well, especially among skeptical employees who initially thought the program was just another corporate cost-savings measure.

One of his team members, Kimberly Jayasinghe, recently returned from maternity leave and now works a Flex schedule. She explains that working from home gives her the ability to focus on her work beyond the hours of 9 to 5, while still spending extra time with her baby.

State Street

Financial services provider, including investment management, research and trading, and investment servicing.

Ownership: Publicly held, NYSE, STT.

2011 operating basis revenue: $9.5 billion.

Top executives: Joseph (Jay) L. Hooley, chairman, president and chief executive officer; Alison Quirk, executive vice president and head of global human resources.

Employees: 29,000.

Locations: Offices in 26 countries, headquarters in Boston.


Changing Face of Flex

Flex is ongoing. We have evaluation and assessment tools to help my HR team capture data from front-line managers as they implement Flex with direct reports. Our FlexTrax tool, for example, records and tracks flexible work arrangements, giving visibility to when and where employees are scheduled to work.

We are constantly evaluating what works and adjusting what does not. While there have been bumps—like the feasibility of Flex in certain jobs or specific hourly arrangements that needed to be modified—we are adapting well. We will continue refining the program to keep employees engaged and the company competitive.

The author is executive vice president and head of Global Human Resources at State Street in Boston.

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