Beyond the White Collar: How to Get Flexibility For Blue Collar Workers, Too

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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

Various special interest groups and universities (both links are to PDF documents) have studied the issue. It seems like the solutions are fairly simple ones:

  • 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.


3 Comments on “Beyond the White Collar: How to Get Flexibility For Blue Collar Workers, Too

  1. Lance,

      The problem with this (very short) piece is that it has major flaws. As Bill Clinton once said ‘you are on the wrong side of history’.

      One of the big problems the US has at the moment is that is in-situ workforce (including, as you mention nurses, retain & factory workers) are being off-shored at an express pace as far back as the mid 1970’s.

      So what about your economic in-situ workforce? America leads the world in its jobless recovery, that is it is slowly creeping back into growth statistics without adding significantly to aggregate job-numbers. America has no economy to support or desire to create a 21st century manufacturing economy. I’d agree with your overall assessment of the retail environment in the U.S having not been in your wonderful country since 2007.

      As an aside another problem the link to nursing is the fact that lots of Americans get sick and not everyone can afford to be a doctor in the US so you have a problem attracting & retaining nurses, its something you simply cannot just offshore (unless your fantastically rich…)

      The second assertion was that ‘we should only be measured by outcomes, not meeting attendance or whether we’re following the rigid schedule’.

      In manufacturing & retail time attendance is essential. Not to say that I wouldn’t implement ‘work-life fit’ measures as put forward by the likes of Cali Yost, such as looking at measures that are already in-place but under the management radar or to implement scheduling systems which attempt to meet both employer & employee outcomes but its a tough fit in the real world.

      Last note. I worked for about 10-months in an operating theatre as my first workforce planning gig. I got paid a pitiful wage, it was extremely stressful and I got to see the best of humanity and the worst of HR & the admin departments. It has been to this date my best job, even with the awful pay. Me thinks our experiences would have been different given other discussions with other WFP & HR professionals who have worked in health space but happy to discuss offline.

      Still glad to have read your article, it certainly got the juices flowing…

    – Shane –

  2. Lance,
    Results-Only Work Environment is just that, a culture that focuses on results.  Wouldn’t EVERY organization want to focus on results?  Medical care centers, large business, small business and every one in-between? 

    ROWE is not remote only.  And it is not a flexible work program.  It is changing the culture of an organization to focus on results and eliminating tasks/activities/meetings that do not add value to the organization’s outcome.  It is giving people control over their lives which leads to increased productivity, less stress, and engaged employees.

    Just like Shane, your article got my juices flowing, too.  🙂

    1. Meh, this disagreement is old. One of the key traits of ROWE is advocating complete schedule flexibility as a way to achieve a results based environment. It’s in the subtitle of the book, it’s in blog posts that the consultants behind ROWE write, the marketing speak on your own website and it’s everywhere in ROWE lore. 

      We can repeat this conversation every single time I post about ROWE but until the marketing changes, the concept is far too rigid to work in most workplaces. You can measure and hold accountable to results while having a rigid need for staffing at a particular time.

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