As I think about the workplace issues faced by my clients, I can’t help but reflect on my personal life and how there might be some parallels. Supervising a toddler’s play date through the corner of an eye, holding my newborn in one arm while typing this opinion piece with the other and a light bulb switched on for me. To authentically reflect this chapter of my life and the workforce issues that matter most to me right now, I have to blog about flexibility. For me, there is nothing else so top of mind.
Since 2007, I’ve advised firms around the world on all kinds of workforce issues including flexibility. Over the course of my travels, I’ve had world-class mentors, both men and women alike.
Within this group, there is a set of common traits that I strive to emulate. They successfully balance the three important attributes of the trifecta: love, life and career.
If you are career-oriented, balancing the three components of the trifecta is an important condition for living a happy and fulfilled life. And, when done properly, it improves your chances of success in the workplace.
In the United States alone, despite relatively low levels of violent crime and unemployment, coupled with steadily rising income per capita over the last few decades, general happiness within the population is declining. The 2019 World Happiness Report describes this relationship as the Easterlin Paradox, where despite rising standards of living, happiness levels trend inverse. This is attributed to a variety of factors, one of which includes digital advancement — ironically, an urgent business opportunity for most executives.
Another reason for the Easterlin Paradox could be the growing workload faced by many employees in today’s workforce. In fact, HR leaders (particularly in North America) consider unmanageable workloads a key risk to their people experience. In response, several firms have prioritized wellness strategies as a means to remediate. To do so, establishing the link to flexibility is key. Wellness and flexibility cannot be decoupled. They go hand-in-hand.
Good flexibility programs help employees balance the trifecta.
- Empower employees to spend meaningful and undistracted time with their loved ones and to invest in starting and/or growing loving relationships.
- Give employees adequate opportunities to enjoy their lives by engaging in leisure activities, pursuing personal passions and participating in social and/or community networks.
- Create a professional environment where love and life are celebrated and where making investments of time in these two components of the trifecta will enhance an employee’s career, as opposed to harming it.
The equation is pretty simple: Organizations that offer flexibility are more likely to have engaged workers. Engaged workers are more likely to be productive. Productivity leads to heightened levels of business performance. Performance strengthens the employer brand. Top talent likes top brands.
In a job seeker’s market where, at least in the United States, there are more open positions than available talent, firms cannot afford to be inflexible if they want to gain the competitive advantage in a growing war for talent.
But where to start? Consider these five tips for paving the way to a flexible future:
- Establish flexible HR policies. Consider a work from home or casual dress policy. Think about an unlimited or mandated vacation policy and how this might impact well-being. Offer flex-time so employees can adapt their work hours to complement their lifestyle (to honor family, health and spiritual commitments).
- Lead by example. Flexible HR policies are meaningless when not adopted. Sometimes, workers do not take advantage of these policies in fear of retribution if leaders do not walk the talk. It’s important that leaders give employees permission to partake by taking advantage of these policies themselves.
- Consider diversity. Flexibility means different things to different people. For example, what might flexibility mean to a parent? How about someone transitioning to retirement? A caregiver? Someone with standing religious commitments? A single person?
With more diversity in the workplace than ever before, it’s important to take into account diverse needs when designing flexibility programs. A one-size approach to flexibility could offer an inflexible result.
- Invest in technology. If the goal is to free up more time for employees for their personal use, offer state of the art technology that enables efficient work from home and mitigates unnecessary travel to the workplace or to meetings (particularly, where distance/air travel is required).
- Monitor well-being and flexibility. To understand the return on investment in flexibility, establish a correlation to well-being metrics and other business outcomes and monitor this over time. Also, review the unintended consequences of “unsupervised” flexibility and put the necessary controls in place. For example, monitor patterns in remote working periodically to make sure people are still coming on-site to work and collaborate when necessary, while taking advantage of the policy when it’s not.
There are many ways to bring more flexibility to the workforce. However, as is sometimes the case with people programs, efforts to enhance flexibility will be futile when leadership support is not in place. While these are best enabled by HR, visible C-suite sponsorship is critical. Remember this before getting into tactics, as getting the leadership team on board first will be a worthy and very important next step.