Forget Yahoo: Why You Should Consider Flexible Work For Employees

Looking beyond the controversy, we find out who benefits most from work flexibility and how you can offer this coveted benefit to your staff.
June 06, 2013

When a big company takes a stand on a highly controversial issue, people are quick to take sides, usually without looking into the details. This is what happened with flexible work hours, after both Yahoo and Best Buy set new standards for each of their workforces. Now that the furor has died down, it's worth taking a deeper look at how these issues might affect your own business.

First of all, flexible work and telecommuting were often used interchangeably when it came to discussions about Yahoo's policies, but they're both referring to different things. Telecommuting is working from somewhere other than a centralized office. Flexible work is when schedules have opportunities for flexibility—employees can come in early then leave early or they can work four 10-hour days instead of five 8-hour days. Some research is showing that flexible work might be favored more by both employees and employers.

Flexible Work Isn't Mainstream

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) indicates that only 5 percent of employers offer flexible work to the majority of its employees on a regular basis. That percentage rose only one point since 2003. Unfortunately, the BLS does not track frequency or other levels of flexible work.

Kate Lister, president of Global Workplace Analytics, an organization that helps companies make the business case for flexible work, explains the challenge with current statistics. “There is no telling what percentage of employees are allowed and/or take advantage of the flexible work option. Our research suggests the number is quite small. We call it the 5 percent privilege. The average person who is allowed to work from home, at least half of the time, is a 49-year-old, college educated, salaried, non-union employee in a management or professional role. More than three-quarters earn over $65,000 a year, putting them in the upper 80th percentile relative to the total workforce.”

Lister shared that studies by the Families and Work Institute (FWI) show over two-thirds of employees feel they don’t have enough time for themselves (64 percent), their spouse (67 percent) or their children (73 percent). Those numbers drop among those with a high level of workplace flexibility to 51percent (self), 57 percent (spouse) and 66 percent (children). Low-wage employees are the most time-starved.

Balancing Act

It’s easier for employees to manage their personal and professional lives when they have some degree of flexibility in how, when or where they work. Employers can create an environment where flexible work can succeed. That involves clearly stating goals and objectives relative to the flexible schedules, providing the necessary tools and training and ongoing support and feedback.

Employees also have a responsibility where flexible work is concerned. Cali Williams Yost, CEO and founder of Flex+Strategy Group and author of the book TWEAK IT: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day, says employees need to manage the way work fits into the other parts of their lives. “Flexible work success requires an extra layer of collaboration, coordination and communication that we need to manage and initiate. But that is a small price to pay in order to have that flexibility to make what matters on and off the job happen on a regular basis.”

RELATED: Does Telecommuting Threaten the Work-Life Balance?

Examples of everyday goals for employees could be as simple as getting to the gym or having lunch with a friend. There are also bigger life transitions that require a more formal reset of personal and professional goals such as having a child, caring for an aging relative, going back to school and minimizing the stress of a long commute or working in retirement.

Results: The Only Thing That Matters

Flexible work is often dismissed in certain industries or positions because of the dictate that employees need to be available for the customer. They’re getting paid to be physically present. However, this doesn’t mean employees cannot have autonomy where their work is concerned.

Cali Ressler, co-author of Why Work Sucks and How to Fix It and co-creator of the Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE), says companies need to hold employees accountable for results, not face time. “Working within a ROWE means you are clear about your goals and measures, and you’re using common sense to approach them in ways that will be most productive and efficient for the customer. Retail and hospitality employees, just like employees in any other industry, must be focused on their customers’ and guests’ needs and satisfy them in order to keep receiving a paycheck ... Any entity that employs people ... needs to ensure they are paying those employees for results not simply for putting in time.”

Ressler adds that transitioning to a results-oriented environment can be challenging but very rewarding. “Managers are accustomed to managing people and how they do work instead of managing the actual work and whether it’s getting done. Managers do need some extra coaching to ensure they don’t slip back into the behaviors of prescribing how, when and where things happen—and instead, have objective performance conversations about agreed-upon goals and measures. This frees them up to be more strategic—because they are no longer playing the role of babysitter. Refreshing!”

Bringing Flexible Work Into the Organization

Lisa Horn is co-leader of the Workplace Flexibility Initiative at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), the world's largest association dedicated to human resource management, representing more than 250,000 members in over 140 countries. “Organizational leaders will be interested to know that flexible work can improve employee health and wellness, reduce real estate costs and turnover, improve retention and increase employee engagement and productivity,” Horn says.

RELATED: From Marissa Mayer to Sheryl Sandberg: Undeserved Backlash

SHRM and FWI partnered to develop a number of resources to help businesses build effective and flexible workplaces. These can be found at SHRM's Workplace Flexibility Resource Page and on their joint When Work Works website. The publication Workflex: The Essential Guide to Effective and Flexible Workplaces is quickly becoming the go-to resource for companies looking to implement effective flex strategies.

Flexible work offers employees freedom and companies the results they’re looking for. Establishing and communicating achievable goals, then holding employees accountable for delivering results are the key ingredients for success.

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