Flex Your Flex-Work Muscles

About four years ago, professional services firm PricewaterhouseCoopers found itself in the crosshairs of a significant talent issue.

Many of its Generation Y workers — a group entering the workforce en masse and one which occupies a significant portion of PwC’s critical lower ranks — were opting to leave the firm at a noticeable clip.

“It wasn’t that people didn’t want to do the kind of work they did,” said Terri McClements, the firm’s U.S. human capital practice leader. “People were looking for the ability to have more flexibility in what they did and how they did it.”

But McClements said PwC has offered its employees flexible working arrangements for some 15 years; the firm’s culture simply hadn’t made flexibility a clear priority. “So we started a campaign three or four years ago to talk about work as a thing, not a place. We started talking about what flexibility is.”

Messaging efforts have paid off, and McClements said the turnover issue has subsided. Employees are now more in tune with PwC’s message on flexibility, and many take advantage of the various flex-work options at their disposal, from compressed workweeks to telecommuting.

PwC’s culture shift on flexible work arrangements represents a larger swing happening at many organizations. As boundaries between work and life continue to blur, a greater number of employees are demanding flexibility in when, where and how work is done.

While many companies have been open to flexible working options in the past, advancements in technology have heightened employees’ capability to work outside of the office during nontraditional working hours.

In some cases, the desired flexibility is simply starting at 10 a.m. instead of 9 a.m., or to have the ability to leave early to drive a child to a doctor’s appointment or sporting event. Other companies have gone all in, offering a results-only work environment where workers are entirely free to do work wherever and whenever they want as long as the work gets done.

But even at companies that have offered flexible working arrangements for a while, many find that to create a successful flextime strategy, the company culture must make it a clear and visible priority.

For diversity and human resources practitioners looking for guidance on crafting a flextime strategy, Diversity Executive interviewed a number of companies and experts steeped in the nuances of flexible working arrangements.

Their stories aim to provide a framework for others to identify the critical components needed to put a flexible work culture in place.

Though these flextime components are deemed valid by the companies that use them, they’re not necessarily always used together. How one company feels about a certain flextime component doesn’t always align with an element prescribed by another.

Set Boundaries

For workplace and career consultant J.T. O’Donnell, the notion of working flexibly started as a personal choice.

“I made a conscious decision to leave corporate America after the birth of my first child and wanted to start a company and run my own business,” said O’Donnell, who is also the CEO and founder of Careerrealism Media. “The first thing I heard was, well, you can’t do that; people only work during regular office hours, and you need to be available Monday through Friday. How are you going to do that and raise your children?”

Now running her own firm with eight employees, O’Donnell has instituted a flextime policy that allows her employees to adjust the times they start and stop work. She said she tells her employees to come in anytime leading up to 10 a.m. and put in their eight hours of work. O’Donnell also said she makes sure her employees cap the number of hours they put in each week at 40 — an effort to share her personal work-life balance mindset with her employees.

But unlike some flexible working arrangements that take time entirely out of the equation, O’Donnell said she prefers her employees to think of their work in 40-hour-a-week increments. Her reason: instead of trying to do the bare bones of their job in as little time as possible, employees adopt the mindset that the more efficient they become in their jobs, the more they will be able to take on, which can advance their professional development.

In essence, the framework encourages employees to go above and beyond, all while maintaining a reasonable 40-hour workweek.

O’Donnell said organizations looking to craft a flextime policy should keep certain boundaries like a core set of hours, allowing for adjusted start and stop times. Limits to when people can start and stop remain important, however.

“It’s not one of those ‘Work eight hours a day whenever you feel like it,’ ” O’Donnell said. “You will have those people that decide to come in at 1 p.m. and they need to be collaborating with people who came in at 7 a.m. and are leaving at 3 p.m. There does need to be that window.”

Make the Business Case

PNC Financial Services Group Inc. offers a number of flexible working arrangements — so long as an individual’s role and business function aligns. Because the company is nearly 50,000 employees strong, individual flextime arrangements come down to conversations between employees and supervisors.

Kathy D’Appolonia, senior vice president of workforce solutions at the Pittsburgh-based firm, said organizations should position flextime as a business decision, not as a perk or personal benefit. As such, employees interested in applying for a flextime arrangement at PNC are required to submit a business proposal to their manager outlining in detail how the work will get done and the business benefit it brings.

“While there is no business benefit to having a teller work from home, there’s plenty of business benefit when people are working perhaps a compressed workweek, where you get greater coverage [of a business area] over the course of the day,” D’Appolonia said.

In other instances, allowing certain groups of employees to work from home has helped the firm reduce real estate costs, again highlighting a business-first mentality.

“At the very least [flextime] should be business neutral,” D’Appolonia said.

Additionally, keeping flextime a business-first issue and not a personal-need issue keeps managers in the clear from having to decide if one person’s case for flextime is more worthy than another’s.

Who’s to say, for instance, that Susie’s desire to care for her children — and therefore adjust her stop time at 3 p.m. — is more worthy than Jill’s desire to adjust her start time to go rock climbing in the morning? If the business benefit for both is there, both are equally appropriate.

Communicate Norms

Lowering its real estate footprint was a big reason Canadian telecommunications firm Telus Inc. decided to implement a companywide flextime policy — known as “work styles” — in 2006.

But Debbie Oster, Telus’ vice president of human resources, said the bigger reason is the firm wanted to better embrace the mobile nature of its employees’ day-to-day interactions with one another.

She said the combination has helped Telus increase engagement and retention while also helping to attract new talent. The company’s goal is to have 70 percent of its workforce entirely mobile by 2015; Oster said 60 percent of its workforce is currently mobile.

Still, for this brand of flex-work to be successful, Oster said Telus’ team-oriented employees have to be transparent and communicate when, where and how things are going to get done. Communication in this vein has lead Telus to encourage teams to establish what it calls “team norms” within the work style system.

Oster described an example team norm: “On my team biweekly we have a two-hour team meeting. Everybody in each of the locations, whether you’re in Toronto or Vancouver or Calgary or Edmonton, you come to one conference room, it’s booked, and everybody is together. “You have that face-to-face collaboration because we are social, we all need to have that social contact. The team norms allow you to help define what is going to be good for all team members.”

Teams are encouraged to revisit team norms on flexible working arrangements each quarter.

Build Flex Into Culture

Flextime cannot operate in isolation. According to Shirley Davis, former vice president for global diversity and inclusion at the Society for Human Resource Management, flextime has to include and be a part of the other components that make a successful organizational culture, like trust and senior leadership buy-in.

“It’s got to work for both employee and the employer,” Davis said. “It can’t be one-sided; it has to be looked at in a broader sense. It needs to include other aspects, like customer service or looking at policies around development.”

To ensure flextime is inclusive of the business strategy and broader culture, Davis suggested HR practitioners hold focus groups and conduct rigorous pre-flextime employee surveys. Ask questions that get to the heart of employee satisfaction and engagement, and understand that flextime is more a mindset than a policy.

Decentralize Implementation,Centralize Review

Columbia University in New York City offers flexible working options to its non-faculty, administrative staff. Faculty is simply required to be on campus when they teach and hold office hours. Otherwise, they’re free to conduct research and prepare course materials when and where they want. These options include traditional adjusted start and stop times to reduced annual schedules to accommodate staff who work in areas only active during the traditional academic year.

Because the university by its nature is so diverse in its staff and services, Carol Hoffman, the university’s associate provost and director of work-life, said crafting a skeleton policy and allowing individual approvals to run case by case is most efficient.

“It is possible within Columbia there will be a department where everybody is on flextime, and there may be a department where nobody is on flextime,” she said. “We’re a highly decentralized institution; there’s very little that’s across the board.”

Still, when it comes to measurement and review of flextime, building a review process into typical talent management processes is ideal. Jennifer Sabatini Fraone, associate director of marketing and communications at the Boston College Center for Work & Family, said it depends on the original goals for implementing flextime. “If they’re looking to retain their star employees, they can look at turnover numbers. If they’re looking at reduction in real estate costs, that’s probably one of the easier ROI calculations to look at.”

Other companies opt to formalize the review process specifically on flextime. “Our guidelines suggest that every new arrangement is evaluated at 60 to 90 days,” said Maureen Corcoran, vice president of health, life and inclusion at financial services firm Prudential Financial Inc. “Part of that form is also employees suggesting how they will regularly discuss the effectiveness of their arrangement with their manager.”

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