What do you think of when you think about workplace flexibility?
If you’re like many people, you probably think of white collar knowledge workers who want to sit home and work in their pajamas. And while my preference is a t-shirt and a pair of comfortable jeans that my wife wants to throw out, the fact remains that much of the dialog has been around the people with the greatest options for flexibility.
On TLNT Radio yesterday, we briefly discussed what flexibility means to people like nurses, retail and factory workers. The first step is to change the dialog as to what workplace flexibility really means and how it can be applied to all situations.
Changing the dialog
When the idea of the results-only work environment (or ROWE) came out, it was a fairly radical concept. And in the three years since Why Work Sucks and How To Fix It was published, much of the dialog about workplace flexibility followed the logic presented in the book — we should only be measured by outcomes, not meeting attendance or whether we’re following the rigid schedule.
And of course, the “no schedule” idea caused health care, retail and manufacturing employers to dismiss this sort of flexibility out of hand. As I wrote last year, that’s a legitimate criticism of ROWE. Results often do rely on people being at work.
The bigger problem is that some never made it past that dismissal and simply stopped instead of looking for perfectly reasonable alternatives to the ROWE workplace. It would be like saying that because you’ll never be able to run a marathon, you shouldn’t do the right thing and try to exercise regularly at all.
Looking for flexible answers
- Add start and end time flexibility where possible.
- Allow for shorter shifts or variable length shifts (longer one day, shorter the next).
- Loosen overtime requirements for employees.
- Allow for easy shift exchange without manager approval.
- Encourage greater utilization of benefits like family and sick leave
As Leanne Chase mentioned when she called into the radio show, flexibility in environments that are sensitive to scheduling demands means listening to employees needs and adjusting as best as possible. I don’t think many people get into nursing expecting a ROWE-like schedule, but there is an expectation that when there is a need to be away from the workplace that need should be able to be met.
There is probably no reminder necessary that being simple doesn’t always equate to being easy. But it should be encouraging the things that would make employees much happier in workplaces with more rigid schedules that don’t constitute an exercise in reinventing the wheel. It might mean an exercise in creativity or more time in scheduling hell (and believe me, I’ve been there) but it isn’t complicated.
That doesn’t mean it’s the only consideration though.
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Union and business needs
It’s hard to imagine that unions would be against a more flexible workplace (and certainly, most aren’t) but those with heavily unionized workforces (and complicated bargaining agreements) will find the exercise in flexibility much less simple than those without one.
For some companies, that would be a non-starter. They may opt to let the union negotiate for flexibility when the contract comes up again.
For me though, I would be impressed if the company opened up a line to amend the agreement to allow for greater flexibility and for the company’s sake, it would also force them to think through some of the complications of workplace flexibility in a highly scheduled environment. What if two key people need flexibility and they can’t both be accommodated? How do you decide how flexibility is doled out.
On the business need side, it can be even more complicated. Manufacturers who have remained in the United States have largely embraced lean culture and workforces. Flexibility requires a small step away from the most hardcore stance of lean staffing. Similarly, retailers often have razor thin margins meaning that an extra couple of staff members per store could be the difference between being in the black, or falling into the red.
Of course, looking at hard costs like this is problematic. What’s retention worth to the organization? What does productivity matter to the business? Both of these are rarely considered but should at least come up before denying the tools in place to offer flexible work environments.
More importantly though, is that most business leaders know that some sort of flexible work arrangement is the right thing to do for their organization. The question is always where to start and making the small changes necessary to begin.
Starting with the above list is the right start but the important part is to not be intimidated by those companies whose industry allows them more flexibility and to make changes that make sense in your environment.