Workplace Flexibility Shouldn’t Be Hushed Up, Speaker Says

By Kathy Gurchiek Oct 31, 2011
Kyra Cavanaugh, president of the Illinois-based company Life Meets Work, was in the middle of a presentation on workplace flexibility when an executive vice president of HR shushed her. Cavanaugh had just uttered the phrase “work/life balance.”

“ ‘Work/life balance is like a dirty word,’ ” she said she was told.

Adding insult to injury: Shushing another adult is akin to a parent trying to prevent a child from saying something embarrassing in front of company, Cavanaugh observed. “There are still preconceptions about work/life, about workplace flexibility,” she said. “For many people in many organizations, it’s still something we can’t talk about. They’re wishing that you didn’t bring it up.”

Cavanaugh presented an Oct. 26, 2011, concurrent session, “Own It! Strategies for Taking the Lead in Workplace Flexibility,” during the three-day Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) 2011 Diversity & Inclusion Conference and Exposition in Washington, D.C.

One reason the senior leader shushed her, Cavanaugh said, was because his organization “was a very male-dominated, ego-driven place” and that person “perceived [work/life balance] as a woman’s issue.”

However, workplace flexibility can be aligned with organizational strategies such as business continuity and disaster preparedness; health and wellness; employee retention; productivity and customer service, she explained.

“It’s not … so we can make our employees happy,” she said. “It’s critical for the financial health of our organizations.”

Diversity Link

There’s a clear diversity and inclusion component to such efforts, she pointed out. Flexible starting and ending times, compressed workweeks, offsite work locations and summer hours can be used to:

  • Attract, retain and develop a workforce that includes those from multiple generations, as well as those with military obligations and various religious practices.
  • Assist employees with care-giving responsibilities.
  • Accommodate those with disabilities.

“[Flexibility] becomes an issue for our entire organization to deal with. It’s not just about something to keep the women happy,” she said. Men, for example, are starting to ask for more flexibility in how, when and where they work.

And employees with disabilities who opt for a more flexible schedule “don’t look like the odd person out, because everyone’s working this way,” she said.

Cavanaugh shared several challenges organizations face in integrating workplace flexibility, as well as solutions to overcoming those challenges:

Challenge 1: Management attitudes about work are stuck in the Industrial Revolution, when business leaders were trained to manage by watching employees work.

Solution: HR can help managers by encouraging them to talk about their fears and doubts concerning flexibility and helping them see how flexibility can work in their department. Provide managers with tools to improve communication and cohesion among teams using flexible options and tools that help supervisors manage the performance of those workers. Consider starting small, such as implementing summer hours.

One tool she pointed to was the Families and Work Institute website,, for examples of other companies’ practices.

Challenge 2: Senior leaders like the status quo. They either don’t have time to take on new initiatives or see no value in revisiting the flexible work program they already have.

Solution: HR can demonstrate cost savings and tie flexibility to strategic initiatives instead of selling it as another HR program.

Challenge 3: Flexibility won’t work for everyone.

Solution: HR can help managers customize flexible options to fit the needs of their department or work site. Possible options include cross-training employees, allowing employees to “float” from role to role as needed, creating customer teams or bundling work.

A receptionist, for example, might work in the office four days a week and use the fifth day to handle paperwork and other tasks that can be done at home.

HR can facilitate conversations about flexibility through formal training or informal conversations with managers. Some organizations discuss flexible options during performance reviews. Another solution is to use a business-based framework to consider flex requests; if the request is denied, employees will be more accepting if they know the decision is reason-neutral and not personal or ad hoc.

“Some organizations have policies that allow individual accommodation and it feels really arbitrary and can do more harm than good,” she said, sometimes causing resentment among other employees or departments.

Challenge 4: The belief that face time means the employee is working.

Solution: Focus on employee performance and job-related outcomes. Many organizations lack performance-based systems, Cavanaugh said.

Challenge 5: Use of flexibility is kept “underground.”

Solution: Find success stories where flexibility has benefited the organization; develop an internal and external communication plan to tout those successes and best practices.

Cavanaugh cited the story of a hospital coding department that saved the hospital $2 million after the department quietly and informally allowed flexibility.

Challenge 6: Proving that flexibility is working.

Solution: Measure the metrics that matter to managers. If flexibility is used to reduce absenteeism, for example, examine absenteeism rates after flexibility is introduced.

Challenge 7: Flexibility remains “siloed” at many organizations.

Solution: Instead of trying to implement flexible work options alone, HR should assemble a cross-functional steering committee that includes representatives from IT, legal, payroll, recruiting and other areas to help spread the work. Choose metrics that matter to the stakeholders and measure where the organization stands when pilot programs are launched for later comparison.

A steering committee can influence multiple stakeholders, measure success across multiple metrics and build a more comprehensive case for flexibility, Cavanaugh said.

The question, she said, is how to have a conversation about workplace flexibility so leaders do not shush HR and diversity and inclusion professionals when they bring the subject up.

“You are in a very unique position to be a game changer in your organization,” she told attendees. “Get in there and encourage those managers to think bigger.”

Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor, HR News.

Related Article:

‘Male Mystique’ Puts Name to Conflict, HR News, September 2011

Related Resources:

Workplace Flexibility Resource Page, SHRM Online Benefits Disciplines

Work-Life Focus: 2012 and Beyond, SHRM Conference, Nov. 8-10, 2011


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