10/16/2013 11:01 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

Helping Managers and Employees Address Equity in a Flexible Working Environment

Work-life practitioners assume many roles within an organization, often serving in the role of change agent and/or educator. In organizations striving to create a more flexible working environment, managers often struggle with issues related to equity. Practitioners frequently are approached by managers expressing frustration at having reluctantly permitted one employee to work flexibly only to then feel obligated to address the issues of other employees also desiring flexible work arrangements. On the flip side, practitioners also are often approached by employees who feel they have been treated unfairly because co-workers have been granted permission to work from home or have a flexible schedule while he or she was not permitted the same opportunity. In my role as a work-life practitioner, I have found this frustration is common in the field. Indeed, issues related to equity and fairness are alive and well in today's workplace.

Many organizations offer flexible work arrangements to their employees as a perk or benefit to support employee work-life and reduce stress levels, but there seems to be a trend taking place with more companies incorporating flexibility into their business strategy today as a means to attract and retain a diverse and talented workforce. In addition to serving as change agents, work-life practitioners find themselves having to educate managers and employees about how the strategic use of workplace flexibility and understanding best practices can increase their success. When managers are provided with the tools to help them understand more about the strategic use of flexibility and have a greater understanding of best practices, the frustration they feel over equity dissipates.

According to best practices, employers should base decisions about which employees work flexibly based on job suitability and work performance, however many managers are generally not familiar with best practices and often base their decisions about who works flexibility dependent upon on who has a "valid reason" for requesting it. When a manager takes a reason neutral approach for approving flexibility and bases their decision on job suitability and work performance, the burden over equity is lifted from the shoulders of the manager. This approach, known as reason neutrality, allows a manager to avoid having to make a judgment about what constitutes a "valid reason" and at the same time, demonstrates respect for the diversity of today's workforce. When managers include their staff in the planning process and seek their input to make a flexibility plan that will work, it demonstrates that the manager is not seeking control and enables his or her staff to successfully carry out business operations with regular communication and accountability.

When employees receive the tools to help them understand more about the strategic use of flexibility and best practices, they feel empowered and have a greater appreciation for the realities of a flexible workforce and what is expected of them. Inclusion of employees in the planning process help employees feel respected and appreciated and, in turn, they work harder to be accountable, become increasingly engaged, and are more willing to go the extra mile for their employer. When employees have a greater understanding of job suitability and work in an open and honest environment where job performance issues are discussed and managed, they are more appreciative as to the reason all jobs and all employees are not suitable for all types of flexible work arrangements. Much like the issue of equity, fairness no longer plagues employees and employers. They tend to be more receptive to the situation, motivated to improve performance or possibly look for alternative job options that will help them attain the flexibility that they desire.

With increasing dependent care responsibilities today being divided by both working men and women as well as rapid advancements in technology (and a host of other legitimate reasons), the traditional approach to work is likely to become a relic of the past in the very near future. Many employers have already recognized this as their businesses have expanded globally or they have witnessed the impact of turnover due to competition in the marketplace and the changing needs of today's workforce. Employers and managers need to support workplace flexibility. Managers and employees need to be given the tools and education necessary to make flexibility work. Employees need to be included in the process and provided a similar understanding of best practices. Today's workforce is diverse and a one size fits all approach just doesn't cut it anymore.