Flex Some Environmental Muscle

According to a March 2012 survey by software company Wrike, 83 percent of employees spend at least a few hours a week working outside of the office, and two-thirds of respondents expect their offices to go fully virtual during the next few years.

In this global, technology-driven economy, work and personal environments are converging. Meanwhile, sustainability is gaining ground as a business imperative. Julie Urlaub, founder and managing partner of Taiga Co., a social media and consulting firm specializing in sustainability, believes that workplace flexibility is an important part of any successful corporate sustainability initiative. She discussed with Talent Management how talent leaders can leverage this relationship.

How can summer hours and other flexible working arrangements make a company more sustainable?

First, it is necessary for companies to define what they mean by flexible working arrangements and even what sustainability is to a company. If, for instance, a company is embarking on business sustainability full on, they might have a corporate sustainability plan, and flexible work hours might fall under employee engagement. But for a smaller company, sustainability could mean they’re simply trying to cut back on carbon, trying to do the right thing, trying to engage employees differently or even just bring eco-awareness so they can kick-start strategic sustainability plans.

Then, by employing sustainable and flexible work hours, you can conserve energy; you can preserve the environment; you can reduce commuter traffic. While that may seem insignificant, it’s actually a broader concept because it reduces toxic gases and dust particles that are released into the atmosphere. That also includes chemicals that get washed into waterways; so from an environmental standpoint, when you’re talking about sustainability and reduced work hours, it makes an impact.

There are also some really great advantages to saving financially with, for example, summer flex hours. You can increase productivity by giving employees something they value so they’re more productive when they’re at work and actually generate more. You can lower your overhead, reduce in terms of less paid time off; and it’s good for recruiting and retention because you have something more to offer in terms of things that employees value.

How can talent leaders measure results and communicate them effectively?

The first part to consider is: What are your goals? At our company we always like to start with the question, What does success look like to you? If you can start by looking at the end, you can backtrack to where you need to begin. Usually, where you can really begin is with benchmarking: Where are you currently? What’s your current status in relation to where you want to be? That helps define the value, what that success is going to be like. Then, you can engage your employees and management — or even the community — connecting those dots between where you currently are and where you need to be. That offers an opportunity to create a vision, capture that vision and create action items about what needs to take place.

The third part that I like to communicate is speaking the business language. Most of us are familiar with corporate language, but not sustainability. Green means something to some people; sustainability means another. There is also corporate social responsibility. So if you could find a common language, a common jargon to communicate what that vision is and how you’re tracking your progress, that business language could be used to communicate those successes, build strategies later and embellish those successes.

What does it mean to strategically align employee interests with business interests, and how can doing so advance sustainability, employee engagement or other value?

When the company’s goals are aligned with an employee’s motivation, performance becomes less a measurement of productivity and more of a business and personal improvement process. The result is true synergy. The business success comes through the personal development. This question implies aligning all of those dots. If you take a traditional company with goals for each quarter, you can embed sustainable measures into those goals — and those could include flexible work hours — and track those metrics. See that they’re aligned with the company goals, right down to the personal development goals. The dotted lines are now connecting up in such a way that is visible. You can track it; you can communicate it and build upon your successes.

Ask yourself, what are the right sustainability metrics? How do we integrate them into the scorecard? What kinds of tactics are needed around that, and what might be some new tools that we need to incorporate into some of these traditional processes? Fortunately, there are some wonderful new startups and existing green companies offering things like this. One I’ll mention is Practically Green because it’s a standalone program you can embed into a company’s goals and align the company’s sustainability goals with employees’ goals in a way that offers everything we just said.

What is important to consider when developing flexible working arrangements? What challenges can arise?

We’ve all heard before that communication is the most important thing, but I think clarity is critical first. No matter what program or how many options are available, the duties, the expectations, the deadlines really need to be clearly outlined. In terms of things to consider, there really needs to be a supportive organization culture. Work with some of the communication channels that you have. It’s not just a one-time communication; it’s an ongoing communication of what’s working, what’s not working and how we can improve it — really engaging stakeholders to prioritize what matters and what information they need to make the best results. Teamwork and reciprocal support from managers moves that along.

Additional things to consider include, for instance, how much is the initial startup cost going to be if you’re doing teleworking or job sharing? One of the questions that comes up oftentimes is, how do you schedule meetings and training courses so that everyone can attend? Sharing workload management is important, especially if you’re going to a compressed workweek vs. the full workweek or shorter hours. Consider customer expectations and address any concerns that may arise.

What kinds of flexible working arrangements seem to work most effectively?

Teleworking is very easy to implement: Most everyone has a phone; most everyone at some point has a computer or can at least take work home. I read a statistic that businesses save somewhere around an average of $20,000 a year for each full-time employee who works remotely, and the productivity can be increased by about 22 percent. You can always condense your hours; you can always compress the workweeks and so forth. But if you’re really taking a step toward more flexible hours, allowing moms or dads more time with families, or leveraging their workload a little differently, teleworking seems to be the first adoptive strategy.

What advice can you offer organizations considering implementing flexible working arrangements?

Start with employees and management. What is it that you hope to achieve? What does that success look like? How will you know when you’ve reached that success? How are you going to communicate that success, and how can you build on that to create more value for your company and others? What do the employees want? Just because management may think it’s easier to execute a compressed workweek vs. something else doesn’t necessarily mean that is what’s going to really engage employees. Identify what they want and what they’re really after, and collaboratively work together to find the solution that really works for your company. That’s where the most gains are made, in terms of productivity and excitement — wanting to be at work.

Elizabeth Lisican is a freelance writer based in Chicago. She can be reached at editor@talentmgt.com.