06 Sep Workplace flexibility: Give and take or tug of war?
The calendar may say it’s still summer, but for workers the lazy, hazy, crazy vacation days are over. It’s back to work – physically and mentally. So now that we are all rested and relaxed, what kind of situation are we returning to in the workplace?
Well, actually neither workers or the workplace seem to be very relaxed. While there are few signs of outright conflict and strife between management and workers, real tensions exist just beneath the surface. In this decade, productivity continues to grow apace. Corporate profits have reached record levels. The compensation of top managers has raced ahead, but most workers have seen their pay stagnate. And despite the work-life balance happy talk that characterizes many corporate communications, working Americans are putting in longer hours and taking fewer vacations than ever before.
What gives? Corporations seem to have the upper hand and are taking advantage of their relative power over individuals to maniacally pursue ever-improving productivity and faster cycle times, all while keeping costs down. A recently published report by Oxford-based think tank Career Innovation showed worker dissatisfaction going far beyond work-life balance. A majority of the 2000 plus knowledge workers responding to a survey indicated they were also unhappy with their levels of achievement, the way their skills are being used, their ability to gain new experiences, and their pay levels. More than half indicated that they would like to change not only their jobs but their careers, and more than 60 percent placed self-employment at the top of their career wish list.
Changing the conversation from balance to agility
The debate regarding work-life balance is letting down both individuals and their employers. What’s needed is a new conversation that focuses not merely on flexibility and balance but on reconciling individual preferences and organizational requirements for agility. The Career Innovation report suggests that companies and individuals start a dialogue focused on three key dimensions of agility:
Scalability entails the ability to change the amount of work that can be performed by varying the number of resources and time worked. Some organizations with sharp peaks in demand now are imitating the military idea of `reservists,’ having an on-call workforce to meet urgent needs. This is particularly attractive to workers seeking to downshift either temporarily (e.g. for family) or permanently (e.g. retirement). Reservists are better than contract labor because their organizational affiliation is much stronger, justifying greater investment in training and development. Pioneers in this area include the accountancy PricewaterhouseCoopers and global disaster relief and development organization Oxfam.
Versatility involves the ability to change the types of work performed. Companies and workers both benefit by constantly evolving their skills and know-how to meet shifting competitive demands. Potential responses include re-training (just-in-time training), multi-skilling (`just-in-case training’), and above all instilling a culture of learning, development, and mobility. Bell Canada initially started its Bell People First initiative to pay for needed retraining of surplus employees to take on new jobs in other parts of the company. Today, its chief goal is career mobility for all employees – not just those losing jobs – and to instill the ethos that the way to grow professionally in Bell Canada is through different job experiences. According to the most recent data, the program netted the company $39 million in cost savings.
Flexibility addresses the ability to change when and where work is performed. While many companies now offer flexible working options, few make it the norm across the organization and many miss huge opportunities for hard business benefits as a result. For instance Sun Microsystems saved $24 million in IT and power costs and $71 million on its property portfolio in one year alone through a program allowing staff to work `wherever they happen to be.’ And 60 percent of the time saving was translated into extra working time.
New Principles for a New Dialogue
For the agile workplace to be realized, employers must significantly broaden the types of relationships they have with people and increase options to enable not only flexibility but also scalability and versatility within their talent pool. At the same time, workers must take the initiative to negotiate the kinds of deals they want – making the business case for the benefits to their employers. Each side can benefit by embracing the following principles:
• Define work in projects, not weeks or years – Most work – and most customer needs – can be divided into projects or customer requirements that have little or no connection to the working week. In tomorrow’s agile workplace more people will choose to divide their work into output-based chunks, gaining control over when, where, and how they work.
• Fit work commitments to life phase – Growing numbers of workers are moving in and out of employment for personal or family reasons, to spend time in the voluntary sector, or to become self- employed. Most – especially women – are not happy to sacrifice career progression for flexibility and thus never return to their original employer. To halt this brain drain, organizations like consultancy Booz Allen Hamilton allow professionals to continue to develop their experience and credentials and keep on meaningful career paths while working reduced hours and remotely.
• Let people choose where they work most productively – Today’s agile workers expect flexibility of location as the norm. As one Ci Survey participant eloquently expressed it, “Get real buddy, this is 2005.” By allowing people to judge the most efficient location for different types of work, they can minimize distractions and wasted commuting time. And employers can reap tens of millions in cost savings and productivity gains.
• Define work in roles that play to people’s strengths – In tomorrow’s agile workplace, roles defined by behavior and outcomes (not jobs defined by tasks) will form the basis for flexible delivery of work, and will be adapted to fast-changing requirements of the business, the individual, and the environment.
• Get over the need for exclusive control – In the future, more companies will gain by openly releasing their workers into other organizations, to return with renewed knowledge and broader experience. One innovative program – Midlands Engineering Industries Redeployment Group – provides the means for players in the U.K. aerospace industry to share information about their labor and skills needs and surpluses, and work cooperatively to move people across organizations and jobs where requirements and skills fit best.
• Design learning into work – Agility can best be built through long-term, trust-based relationships between people and organizations. Traditional hire-and-fire approaches (including outsourcing) can be wasteful and expensive, destroying morale and depleting knowledge. These actions are sometimes necessary, but companies need to devote far more attention and resources to providing ongoing learning and development and allowing employees to shift roles and acquire new skills as business requirements and opportunities change.
Employers and workers to need to stop the narrowly focused tug-of-war between corporate productivity imperatives and individual demands for work-life flexibility, and to engage in a broader dialogue over the kinds of agility that will serve each side’s interests. It won’t be easy, but the present situation is causing unsustainable levels of burnout, turnover, and voluntary exile from the workforce. Redefining working arrangements and employment relationships around the broader dimensions of agility is a potentially more productive route for both sides to get what they want. It’s time to stop pulling on that rope and sit down and talk.
Is workplace flexibility a source of contention or cooperation at your place of employment? Please e- mail Tony DiRomualdo at firstname.lastname@example.org to share your experiences and perspectives.
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