They just keep piling up. Study after study indicates that flexibility is a critical component of an effective workplace and a strategic business tool for responding to the changing economy and workplace. It’s also proved effective in designing a work environment in which employees are engaged and committed to achieving organizational goals. Sounds ideal, right? Good for both employers and employees. Why, then, is it so hard to make this shift, to convince managers and companies of its efficacy? Why are we still fighting the same battles we thought we had won years ago?

Ultimate Goal: A Culture of Flexibility
Workplace flexibility refers to the presence of formal flexible work arrangements (FWAs) as well as a culture that supports both formal and occasional flexibility. As alternatives to the traditional way of working, FWAs allow employees to vary how, when and where work gets done. They are not ends in themselves, they are tools for achieving a more expansive objective: a culture of flexibility—a work environment that respects the needs and differences of individuals, enabling organizations to be more agile, healthy, and productive.

Flexible Work Arrangements Benefit Employees AND Managers
For employees, FWAs help workers gain control over their time and life. More control leads to greater job satisfaction, which leads to better work and more commitment. This positive impact circles back to the employer and contributes significantly to reaching business goals.

For managers, FWAs can address business needs such as space, overtime, retention, recruitment, morale, engagement, and commitment. We’re all aware how much the workforce and economy are changing. FWAs offer a strategic business approach for responding to these major changes.

Determining Appropriate and Well-Managed FWAs
Despite its immense potential, flexibility is a relatively new way of thinking about how work is done, and it doesn’t happen automatically. It requires understanding and skill. To succeed, FWAs must be appropriate and well-managed. Training is needed to ensure that they are appropriate (the right person, the right job and the right circumstances) and that good management practices are followed.

In an ideal world, managers would have at least a full day of interactive live training, supported by online materials and ongoing, periodic discussion groups. But as we’ve learned, it’s not easy getting that much time to address managers’ concerns, open their minds to the possibilities of flexibility and build up the understanding and skills they need.

Helping Managers Embrace FWAs
In my ten years managing flexibility in a large cancer center in NYC, I identified three key concerns of managers. If I had only fifteen minutes to make a case for flexibility, these concepts seemed to calm fears and open minds:

  1. FWAs are not an entitlement
    There is a great fear among managers that once the idea of flexibility is introduced, employees will feel they have a right to it and will demand it, and all control will fly out the window. Managers need to understand that flexibility is a possibility, not an entitlement, and that it is critical to communicate this to employees during a rollout of any flex initiative.
  2. FWAs must support business objectives
    An FWA must help the work get done as well as or better than when it’s done the usual way. There should be no interruption in work flow, no degradation of work product or customer service, and no one picking up slack for someone working flexibly. If the work can’t be done as well or better, the job isn’t appropriate for flexing.
  3. Personal reasons are not a determining factor
    Managers worry about how they will deal with the reasons employees give when requesting flexibility. The truth is that why an employee seeks flexibility should not be a determining factor in the decision to approve or not. What matters is results — how well the work can get done. It may never be possible to completely disregard reasons, but if they become determining factors, FWAs will not be equitable or sustainable.

I have seen body language change and interest grow when managers understand these key concepts. They begin to realize that flexibility does not mean they’ll lose control of their employees and departments. It’s just a foot in the door, but it’s a start on the road to a culture of flexibility, one that’s good for business and good for lives.

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