Jennifer Sabatini Fraone, Assistant Director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family, has contributed this post as a Featured Guest Blogger. This is the fifth post in a Corporate Voices for Working Families blog series exploring key themes discussed during the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s “Focus on Workplace Flexibility” national conference, held on November 29-30, 2010. This series aims to continue the dialogue and forward momentum for expanding awareness about the positive business impacts of flexibility, how flexibility improves the lives of working families and about what tools and resources exist to help employers implement flexibility policies and practices.  This series also aims to represent the different perspectives on an important issue affecting the lives of working families. The views expressed in this blog series are those of the writers and contributors.

I had the privilege of attending the “Focus on Workplace Flexibility” event sponsored by the Sloan Foundation at the end of November in Washington, D.C.  During the event, I was struck by the compelling case for WHY workplace flexibility is important, made by thought leaders from both academia and corporate practice (see the Sloan Foundation’s “Focus On Workplace Flexibility conference website” and follow #focusonflex for excellent commentary and resources on Twitter).

Now it is time to focus on the HOW–how do we develop and implement Flexible Work Arrangements (FWAs) so that they are successful and achieve the intended objectives?  The Boston College Center for Work & Family (CWF) researched the practices of companies who view flexible work not as a “perk” or benefit for their employees, but as a strategic business imperative.  Over the last twenty years numerous programs, policies and initiatives for FWAs have been rolled out with much fanfare and optimism. We sought to understand why some programs are working well, while others have not met expectations, by examining the “implementation gap.”

Overcoming the Implementation Gap: How 20 Leading Companies are Making Flexibility Work compiles knowledge and quotes obtained through interviews with HR executives, managers and employees who utilize flexible work options.  The report focuses on an array of exemplary programs from leading companies along with insights, recommendations and strategies believed to be responsible for their success. Some of the FWAs examined include: teleworking, part-time and reduced workload, job-sharing, alternative work schedules and programs that link business results with FWAs. The report is now available in its entirety for the first time on our website along with other CWF publications, including Creating a Culture of Workplace Flexibility and Measuring the Impact of Workplace Flexibility.

As we conducted the study, we made note of a number of common factors that stood out in the successful implementations:

Flexibility that works within the culture: Tailoring the flexible work initiative to the needs of the organization and its employees is critical.  There is no “cookie cutter” approach that will work for all corporations, nor for all departments within any one organization.  FWA initiatives must take into account the corporate culture, business needs, job responsibilities, logistics and other factors. Not all forms of flexibility will work for every job, but there are generally some options that can be offered that will align organizational needs with employee needs.

Consistent yet flexible guidelines: Developing a policy and/or guidelines helps managers and employees know what to expect.  The guidelines should be consistent and administered fairly-this does not mean each employee’s request will have the same outcome, as each job situation must be evaluated on an individual basis. Guidelines help managers make decisions and provide rationale for altering an FWA that is not working. Flexible work policies that are fluid, reason neutral and adaptable to a wide variety of situations appear to work best.

Manager training: Our overwork culture and downsizing during the recent recession have increased manager overload.  Managing FWAs requires new management approaches and “one more thing” for managers to think about, often leading to resistance.  Training can help dispel fears and provide a structure to guide managers through responding to requests and successfully managing employees who utilize FWAs.  Managers need to understand the business drivers for flexibility within their own organizations; both data and personal anecdotes can be useful in making the case.  Manager training that includes a discussion of case scenarios that are relevant to the business unit-optimism from peers is an effective tool for overcoming some of the resistance to FWAs.

Emphasis on performance: In order for an FWA to be approved, employees should have a satisfactory performance record. Performance and productivity should not suffer under the arrangement; they should be maintained or even enhanced.  One of the managers interviewed for our study stated,

“As a manager, I have adjusted the way I work with people who use FWAs to ensure that they are well engaged and integrated into the organization, but I have not adjusted my expectations for their performance levels.  I have found that people can be more productive.”

A 90-day trial period allows the employee to demonstrate their ability to perform and promotes conversation between manager and employee about what is working well and what isn’t.

Employee responsibility: It is important for employees to view a flexible work arrangement as a business agreement rather than an entitlement.  FWAs offer a new way of working that is intended to deliver benefits for both the employee and the organization–both parties need to be “flexible” to ensure that the work gets done.  Many organizations utilize a proposal form that includes questions to get the employee thinking about how the arrangement can be successful and prepare them to converse with their manager to make their case.  The onus is on the employee to make the FWA viable by demonstrating that they can effectively complete their work under the arrangement.

Measurement of results and refinement: In our data-driven business climate, tracking metrics related to FWA implementation is important.  Data that show that FWAs are being used effectively and contributing to the success of the business can help sustain the program.  Collecting feedback from multiple stakeholders can help guide continuous improvement of the initiative.

We believe that the availability of FWAs will continue to grow as a strategic approach to engaging a productive, agile and loyal workforce.  To learn more about our work, follow us on Twitter @BCCWF, Facebook, YouTube or visit our website www.bc.edu/cwf.

Jennifer Sabatini Fraone is Assistant Director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family (BCCWF), a global leader in helping organizations create effective workplaces that support and develop healthy and productive employees. The Center, part of Boston College’s Carroll School of Management, links the academic community to leaders in the working world dedicated to promoting workforce effectiveness.  BCCWF celebrated its 20th Anniversary in 2010. Visit www.bc.edu/cwf for more information.

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