HR executive Karen Mathews remembers the day when Mother Nature went berserk, unleashing a storm that shut down her city and her workplace for days. It wasn't Hurricane Sandy, but another rare weather event that brought snow, wind and ice to the southeastern United States from Texas to Virginia in 2011.
But what Mathews remembers most is how employees at WellStar Health System Inc., a not-for-profit network of hospitals and other providers based in Marietta, Georgia, were able to keep operations going smoothly thanks to its flexible workplace initiatives. The company was just days away from kicking off a training program to help managers implement the company's new FlexWorks program, she says, when the January 2011 storm blanketed the region with six inches of snow and slicked the roads with ice causing a number of traffic fatalities. Roads, schools and offices in Atlanta were closed for four days.
"We had daily conference calls with leaders on how to handle the crisis," says Mathews, director of work-life services for WellStar. "Emails were going out every day. I found out later that people were [working] … from home in their pajamas and fuzzy slippers. Some people went to the closest WellStar office and worked there. Flex is about being nimble so when things happen you can bend and accommodate the situation."
Discussions about workplace flexibility—allowing employees some control over when and where they work—seem to be gaining momentum as the Northeast recovers after Hurricane Sandy, which swept across the East Coast in late October killing more than 100 people in the Northeast and leaving millions without power. Businesses were shuttered for days.
"It's been a big wake-up call for companies," says Kathy Kacher, founder and president of Career/Life Alliance Services Inc, a consulting firm in Burnsville, Minnesota. She believes that "the grip of the traditional workplace is finally loosening," but employers have a long way to go in adopting arrangements such as telecommuting, compressed workweeks, job sharing and flexible hours.
There is a big disconnect between how employees and employers view work-life issues, she says, and points to a 2009 survey that shows about 12 percent of employers rated work-life balance "as crucial to hiring and retention" while 86 percent of employees rated it as a "top career" priority. The study was conducted by Spherion Staffing Services and a number of other firms.
While offering telecommuting, compressed workweeks, and job sharing to employees can go along way toward improving morale and engagement, it's not enough, according to Maryella Gockel, an HR executive and flexibility strategy leader with accounting firm Ernst and Young in Iselin, New Jersey. She says that companies must also have a "culture of flexibility."
"Those are programmatic solutions versus a culture that says, we trust you to get your work done in a high quality way." That ethos is alive and well at Ernst and Young, which is an early pioneer of workplace flexibility.
WellStar didn't formalize its work flex program until 2011, but managers had been allowing flexible scheduling and telecommuting since at least 2007 when Mathews began studying the issue and talking with company leaders. "We looked at results like patient satisfaction, quality of care scores, and financial scores. When leaders started looking at those results, they saw that it didn't matter where and when people were working. "
By the time the 2011 storm hit, leadership was onboard, according to Mathews.
"Because we had so much going on in this area already, when we formalized it there wasn't any push-back," Mathews says. "We let the philosophy grow organically. It was the best way it could have happened."
Rita Pyrillis is Workforce's senior writer. Comment below or email firstname.lastname@example.org.