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Using Workplace Flexibility as a Talent Strategy

"Workplace flexibility is not a benefit and it's not a right; it's a business strategy," explained Teresa Hopke, a principal at the consultancy Life Meets Work, during her May 1 presentation at the Society for Human Resource Management's 2012 Talent Management Conference, held near Washington, D.C.

“Workplace flex is not like pizza Fridays. It’s an incredibly powerful, strategic business tool,” she added, quoting flexibility advocate G. Brint Ryan, CEO of Ryan LLC.

The "new economy," which favors lean and highly productive organizations, is forcing employers to think differently about their talent management strategies, Hopke said. "Studies show that as much as 81 percent of the U.S. workforce might be looking for other opportunities," she noted. "The engagement and retention of your top talent is at risk, which directly impacts the success and sustainability of your organization. Flexibility is one of the best tools you can use to attract and retain talent and close the skills gap."

As an example, Hopke told of a consultant with an exemplary performance record who left her firm shortly after her request to work from home one day a week was denied. (She was told, as so many are, "If we do it for you, we'd have to do it for everyone," without thought given to how that might actually be good for the business). The woman subsequently started her own consulting practice.

Flex as the ‘Silver Bullet’

Whether it's telecommuting, compressed work weeks, alternative scheduling or other arrangements, Hopke called workplace flexibility—granting employees autonomy to control when, where and how they get their work done—"close to the ‘silver bullet’ among nonfinancial rewards." But while studies indicate that 80 percent of U.S. businesses say they have implemented workplace flexibility, most have done so ad hoc rather than establishing a "flex culture" and embedding flexibility as part of the talent management strategy.

Flex Touches Everything

To demonstrate the advantages of a flex culture, Hopke showed how flexibility impacts areas throughout the organization positively. For instance, flex arrangements can:

  • Improve employee health by reducing stress and allowing employees to work from home when feeling poorly (with the added advantage that they don't come to work and make other employees ill).
  • Lower real estate costs by reducing office space, and lower parking and transit subsidies.
  • Ensure business continuity despite inclement weather, technical outages and disasters.
  • Increase diversity and inclusion by accommodating those with caregiver needs and disabilities and those who need flexibility for religious observances, among others.

Embedding Flex into Strategy

When work flex is embedded deeply into an organization, managers understand that before they say no to a request for flexible scheduling they should consider saying yes and weighing how flexibility might work in a particular situation. If there are concerns, managers should be open to trying such arrangements on a pilot basis rather than ruling them out, Hopke advised.

To achieve this level of acceptance, leadership support and buy-in are essential, she said.

Among her recommendations:

  • Make flex a key part of the organization's employee value proposition.
  • Ensure that flex isn't "smoke and mirrors" but a key driver of engagement.
  • Leverage flex for recruiting untapped talent pools.
  • Brand the organization as a provider of flex solutions.
  • Leverage flex to redesign work processes.

To achieve these ends, Hopke advised:

  • Set clear expectations for managers and employees regarding flex arrangements.
  • Build the use of flex options into managers' learning and development, and embed the effective use of flex practices into career profiles and competencies.
  • Evaluate managers on how well they implement flex arrangements, and factor that performance into compensation decisions.

Hopke concluded by showing a three-minute video designed to overcome management resistance by highlighting the variety of wayssome not so obviousin which workplace flexibility supports business success.

Stephen Miller, CEBS, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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