The Department of Labor defines a flexible work schedule as an alternative to the traditional job, which tethers workers to their desks from 9 to 5. But in practice, what does that really mean?
“It means a way of working actively, intentionally and strategically,” said Cali Yost, CEO and founder of Flex + Strategy, a Madison, N.J., company that helps businesses develop a culture that embraces flexibility to enable employees to deal not only with their work lives but their personal lives as well.
While IBM made headlines last year when it ended its longstanding remote work policy, a recent report from Flex + Strategy maintains that implementing a flexible work culture improves productivity, innovation, communication and engagement. The key is to make sure people know what the end-goal is and to let them figure out how to get there.
“There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to flexibility,” said Yost, who founded Flex + Strategy two decades ago. “What happens is organizations like IBM have taken a policy approach to flexibility, and that doesn’t work. You can’t put a rule around all the different ways work can be done. It requires a shift in mindset and behavior, using different tools, and training for individuals and managers.”
Released last month, the report is based on telephone surveys of nearly 600 adults who are employed full-time. It argues that companies should change the language related to working outside the office from “work at home” to “work remotely,” which broadens the range of acceptable work environments, whether it be a client site or an airport lounge.
“For many, working remotely is how they complete tasks that require uninterrupted focus while using the time saved from commuting to go to the gym, see a doctor or participate in their child’s science fair,” the report said.
Nearly everyone has some degree of flexibility at work, whether it’s the ability to leave early on any given day to working outside the office. The key is communication among colleagues and managers, the report said.
The Gallup organization reported earlier this year that 43 percent of U.S. workers work remotely at least some of the time, while 51 percent said they would change jobs if they could find one that offers flexibility.
Workers who effectively use flexibility feel more engaged with their jobs and work at a higher level, Yost said, possibly because they don’t feel as if work gets in the way of life.
In a flexible work culture, the manager doesn’t determine when an employee works, but rather sets the intention about what needs to be done, Yost said. The manager should be focused on whether the work is completed and completed well, not how it gets done.
“If people are being thoughtful about what needs to be done, coordinate with colleagues, then a manager can step back,” Yost said. “But you can tell from the research that a lot of people aren’t being trained to do that. Everybody needs to understand and operate off the same framework of skills. Some people get it; some people don’t.”
Leaders at BDO USA, a part of the BDO International global accounting network, decided three years ago to ease the stress of tax season by offering employees more flexibility.
Meredith Pilaro, tax partner at BDO’s Washington, D.C., office and co-chair of the company’s flex strategy, said flexibility is not a program or policy, but rather a strategy.
“The possibilities are endless. Setting up that way has allowed creative iterations that don’t happen when you have a set of options. That limits how people think about applying flexibility,” Pilaro said.
“We are trying to help employees re-energize and refocus with a renewed mindset to stay engaged,” said Marcee Harris Schwartz, BDO USA’s national director of diversity and inclusion. “The flex strategy really has gained a lot of momentum. At first, we had some participation, but it continues to grow across the country. People post what they do on their breaks. We have a contest to determine which office is taking the most breaks.”
During tax season, BDO employees can see their workweek increase by 50 percent. The company has three flex options: day-to-day, formal flex and predictable work breaks that include such things as trivia contests and ping pong tournaments. Harris said the day-to-day strategy is informal, allowing employees small shifts to accommodate work and life.
“Sometimes they can start late or start early if they need a break in the middle of the day. Life gets in the way,” Harris said. All employees need to do is communicate so managers can make sure they are fulfilling their work responsibilities.
“Formal flex is more formalized. We have seasonal flex for people who work more during the busy season and then less or not at all during less busy times. Predictable work breaks are more strategic. You have to be thoughtful about when you take breaks to stay refreshed.”
Harris said BDO’s flex strategy has become one of its top retention and recruitment tools.
“People have told me they didn’t know if they’d still be in public accounting if they didn’t have the flexibility,” she said. “Sixty-seven percent of those hired out of college list flexibility as one of the top three reasons they accepted the job.”
Pilaro said the organized work breaks really lighten the mood during tax season and enable teambuilding. The goal is to make the breaks impactful and meaningful.
BDO USA has some 6,000 employees and first began dabbling in flexibility a dozen years ago. Advances in technology have had a major impact on the program.
“As we continue to look for different ways to work with people, one of our core aspects of our flex culture is that it’s very personalized. We have resources in each office and on our internal website. We make sure people are aware of options and plans,” Pilaro said. “We want to work with people who are great at what they do and enjoy their jobs. People are able to stay engaged and advance because they have the opportunity to juggle whatever else life is throwing their way. They’re not penalized or forced to take PTO [paid time off].”
Harris said that approach has had a major impact on the business, allowing it to be more successful.
“By helping people with wellness and mental health, they’re doing better work and delivering better client service. Flexibility is not just about people. It’s a tool that can be used to help our business run better,” Harris said.
Flex + Strategy’s Yost agreed.
“What you want to do is sit down and determine the best combination of flexibility for everybody to be their most effective,” Yost said. “One-hundred percent remote is not the best answer for everybody. It might be better to have physical space for some people to come in some of the time.”
Yost said people need a specific skillset to work effectively in a flexible work culture. They need to be able to think through what they need to get done and determine their priorities both at work and in their personal lives. They need to be trained to analyze how to use their flexibility, including what they need to get done when and where best to accomplish that, and how to use technology to enable them to get the job done. Managers need to be trained to coordinate across their teams.
“It’s very different working with a flexible work team than when everyone is in the same place every day,” Yost said. “People still think of flexibility as a perk, not a benefit, and they’re not sure what it is. Until we see this as a strategic imperative, organizations are not going to devote the required resources to give people the proper tools and skills. It’s a lost opportunity.”