As a longtime advocate for the benefits of workplace flexibility, I feel encouraged when I see signs of progress. Corporations now have dedicated task forces studying the issues and implementing workable solutions. Nonprofit research organizations like the Families and Work Institute are publishing solid data that shows how flexible work programs benefit the individual and the company. Many pundits and reporters are saying the right thing: “Workplace flexibility is not just a women’s issue,” but that proclamation isn’t being reflected in the trenches yet.
There are repercussions of thinking flexibility in the workplace pertains only to working mothers. If you look at a cross-section of any productive work team, we inevitably uncover a melting pot of individuals with myriad work-life complexities. When we limit our view of alternative work options as being a “mommy perk,” we alienate the rest of that workforce and fail to benefit from the full potential of what the modern-day work schedule has to offer.
Experts agree that workplace flexibility is viable and sustainable only when both the employer and employee mutually benefit from the program. For that to happen, leaders need to build flexibility programs based on the needs, desires and functions of an entire team. One-offs don’t really work here long-term.
As company leaders begin to understand the positive impact from a team flexibility approach, the question naturally turns from why to how. Here are some ideas for introducing and managing team flexibility:
1. Acknowledge the unique needs of all team members. Whether you conduct a formal survey or meet informally with each associate, it’s important to understand the ideal work situation for each individual. Don’t assume that a working parent needs flexibility or that a single baby boomer is OK with a traditional work schedule. Likewise, don’t promise changes that might not work for the team overall. Simply take inventory of what personal influences may or may not affect performance at work.
2. Engage the entire team. Once you understand the individual needs of the team, consider the team’s requirements as a whole. Productivity and equitable treatment of all employees must be evaluated before implementing any type of workplace flexibility program. Be transparent and find creative solutions that cover the business essentials without overloading any team members. At Mom Corps, we manage a group calendar where we include personal as well as work appointments. We schedule standing meetings to accommodate the majority, avoiding early or late start times. We evaluate the situation quarterly to make sure all team members feel they are being treated equitably, that clients’ needs are being met and that the business continues to run smoothly. Sometimes decisions are difficult, and as individuals we must make work-life reparations in the name of the business and each other. But we acknowledge that flexibility is in itself an elevated level of teamwork and well worth the effort to perpetuate it.
3. Publish an equitable policy. One educational institution historically known for technological innovation is also taking a progressive stance in the workplace flexibility arena. The MIT Center for Work, Family and Personal Life created a guide to flexibility for its managers and employees. The document clearly outlines a fair framework for the MIT employee community at large. Concise guidelines are provided for both employees seeking alternative work arrangements and the managers considering their requests. For example, the policy states, “All proposals should be treated equitably, regardless of the employee’s reason for requesting flexibility.” MIT has broadened the needs to “personal” rather than “family.” Collaborative initiatives like this send a clear internal message that flexibility is not just a parent issue.
Flexibility is a business strategy engaging the entire workforce and not just a particular employee segment. When we frame flex work options as purely family-centered, we risk growing resentment among the rest of our workforce and deflecting the overall benefits alternative work options afford a company. Let’s strive to apply flexibility and other progressive work options more broadly across our organizations and employee populations.