THE BLOG

Workplace Flexibility: Not a 'Program,' It's a Solution

10/28/2013 01:13 pm ET | Updated Jan 23, 2014

Are your employees stressed? Is engagement low? Productivity slipping? Turnover increasing? Do you have a "leaky pipeline" especially when it comes to women achieving leadership positions? Are the rising stars in your organization expressing concern about their work-life fit? Is employee health and well-being declining?

Increasingly, leaders are faced with these challenges every day. Research consistently demonstrates high employee stress, low levels of engagement, and employees of all generations struggling with work-life integration. These have become pervasive in our "always on" work culture. The progressive organizations that are our corporate partners at the Boston College Center for Work & Family are duly concerned with these talent management issues and are looking to flexibility as a solution. They view flexibility not as another HR program or a "perk" for certain special employees, but as a new, and perhaps better way of working.

When I attended the Working Mother Work Life Congress this week, I was struck by how many organizational leaders at top organizations have truly embraced workplace flexibility. I had the privilege of serving as a thought leader in one of the sessions focused on that topic, but was more surprised that the issue of flexibility permeated nearly every single session, panel, and even the awards ceremonies throughout the event.

I heard how State Street Corporation, Marriott, EY, Dell, Ryan, Pfizer, and many additional highly successful organizations are taking a strategic approach to implementing flexibility across their organizations. They do so not to "accommodate" employee needs, but to ensure they remain high-performing, sustainable, successful companies. They emphasize that flexibility is a strategic business tool. At the same time, flexibility allows working mothers, and increasingly working fathers (as our own research confirms), as well as elder caregivers, outdoor enthusiasts, community activists, and all employees to have the fulfilling life they seek.

We've come a long way on the road toward flexibility, but there are still many miles to go before it becomes fixed as a new way of working in all of our organizations. And more importantly, embedded in a culture of respect, trust, and a commitment to engaged, productive, innovative employees.

One way of accomplishing this is by bringing the conversation to the forefront, and presenting flexibility as a solution, as an option for people to do their work in a more creative manner, where and when they can be at their best. I reflected on this with my colleagues this week as we process the results of the National Workplace Flexibility Study (to be released publicly in January). In working with the companies in our study, we've taken flexibility from "under the table" and now put it "on the table", opening up a robust discussion of how teams can function, communicate, and collaborate optimally, whether they are face-to-face or working virtually.

Can every form of flexibility work for all employees? Of course not. There are situations where telecommuting would be impossible, or that service hours must be covered to meet customer needs. But we must not be bound by the outdated notion that all work must be done within the confines of an office between the hours of 8 and 5. Our 24/7 global economy requires that we are available far beyond normal office hours, and technology readily enables us to do so. What technology does not do, however, is allow us to set boundaries on our own personal time. We must actively consider how to meet our work and personal obligations in a way that we can be successful at both. Working in an organization that views us as "whole persons" and supports our occasional or regular need to "flex" will go a long way in helping employees feel more empowered to fulfill their multiple responsibilities.

Businesses that view flexibility as a solution, rather than another "program" to be added to the talent management repertoire, have the advantage of thinking strategically about how they work. I will loosely paraphrase Lotte Bailyn, Professor Emeritus at MIT Sloan School of Management, who shared her thoughts with us at our recent Roundtable meeting: work-family challenges can be a catalyst for organizational change. We should take a proactive approach to ask employees directly what makes their work difficult. And consider how we can modify our entrenched work practices to improve both individual and team effectiveness.

As Congress formally recognizes National Work and Family Month on October 29th, let's pause and reflect on our workforce, our workplaces, and the solutions we now have in our hands to promote the ability for our people to thrive both at work and at home. Workplace Flexibility must be a part of that equation. Our workplaces, our families, and arguably our economy and society depend on it.