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No Mere Perk Flex Work as a Strategic Tool

April 7, 2010
Related Topics: Work/Life Balance, Featured Article, Compensation, Benefits

For more than 30 years, the New York-based Families and Work Institute has studied the American workforce. The organization has found that work isn’t working for many employees. It hasn’t for decades.

“Employees are feeling stretched and stressed, with reduced job satisfaction, productivity and health outcomes,” says Tyler Wigton, project manager of When Work Works at the institute. “We found that flexibility is a critical but overlooked factor in making work work. It can be a strategic business decision.”

That’s a very rare view. “Flexibility has long been thought of as a perk, mainly for women,” Wigton says. “It’s a Band-Aid for one-off situations, and there’s often some penalty or jeopardy for using it.”

To change corporate attitudes, the Families and Work Institute created the Alfred P. Sloan Awards for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility. Awards go only to employers with programs that employees use, that align flexibility with corporate strategy and that produce measurable benefits. Individual workplaces receive them, not entire companies. “Flexibility is local,” Wigton says. “If you have a call center in one place and corporate headquarters in another, local practices can be very different.”

Last year, 31 of the 37 U.S.-based offices of professional services firm BDO received Sloan Awards for their strategic flexibility practices.

“The flexibility program started with an assessment to see why the firm was losing women at high levels,” says Barbara Taylor, flexibility chairperson and general counsel for BDO. “It turned out that women needed flexibility, but so did everyone else. So we spun it off from the women’s initiative.”

The program has many options, and they’ve produced tangible benefits. Telecommuting saved real estate costs when employees in Dallas, Phoenix and Memphis, Tennessee, stayed home but still amassed enough business to open offices in Austin, Texas, Las Vegas and Nashville, Tennessee. Three- and four-day workweeks let BDO “get really fabulous people and save costs when we don’t need a full-time person,” Taylor says. A 5 a.m.-to-3 p.m. schedule lets a U.S.-based customer specialist better meet European clients’ hours.

Cali Yost, CEO of Work+Life Fit Inc. in Madison, New Jersey, consulted with BDO on the program. “My workplace model is a business-strategy-based approach where flexibility is integrated into the business model of the organization,” she says. Yost insists that flexibility planning and implementation involve everyone in a company. Each person must not only determine his or her requirements, but also figure out how that flexibility will strategically benefit the company.

Winners of the Sloan Awards nominate themselves by completing a survey on flexibility and culture. “Responses are compared to the Families and Work Institute’s national norms,” Wigton says. Workplaces scoring in the top 20 percent graduate to the employee flexibility survey. Two-thirds of the final score is based on the employee survey, and 40 percent of surveyed employees must respond.

In 2005, the awards’ first year, 100 employers applied. For the 2009 awards, 904 applied. “There is a growing awareness that flexibility is a strategically competitive necessity in a global economy,” Yost says.

Workforce Management, March 2010, p. 4 -- Subscribe Now!

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