Leanne Chase, President of Career Life Connection, has contributed this post as a Featured Guest Blogger. This is the third post in a Corporate Voices blog series exploring key themes discussed during the “Focus on Workplace Flexibility” national conference, held on November 29-30. 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 would love to live in a world where employers did what was right for employees because they were altruistic and cared about them.  I’m sure in that world the sun would shine everyday, we would not need to worry about carbon emissions, we could eat as much cake as we like and would only grow fat by eating lettuce.  We don’t live in that world.

In the world we live in, employers need to make money.  That pays salaries and keeps stockholders happy.  And that is the motivation behind providing flexibility at work.  While some employers understand that making money and keeping customers happy go hand in hand with a happy workforce…this may have been a secondary realization.  And that’s what I learned mostly at the Sloan Foundation’s “Focus on Workplace Flexibility” conference a couple of weeks ago.  The path to flexibility may have been different for each employer, but the reason was not…it was strictly good business:

Beat the Competition

At Cardinal Health, Inc they had a problem.  When they looked around they realized they were losing workers to their competitors.  They realized many of the workers they were losing had recently returned from having children.  They realized that with their workers went their competitive advantage.  So they listened.  They talked.  And they asked for volunteers to pilot a flexibility program.  It was 100 percent voluntary.  Pre and post surveys found that those who were working flexibly had lower stress levels, higher productivity and better morale.  That was all the information they needed to go from pilot to company-wide flexibility and what they needed to retain their competitive advantage.

Knowledge is Power and Good Customer Service

While Bon Secours Health System is one of those employers who does believe in treating their employees right, they still had a high turnover rate:  25 percent.  When they looked deeper they found that as their employee population was aging, the very physical aspect of a nurse’s job was becoming too much for some.  30 percent of their workforce was over 50 years old.  They had great desire to keep working, they had many years’ worth of knowledge about how to do the job…they just couldn’t do some aspects of it.  So what to do?  Change it up.  Bon Secours changed some aspects of the job, allowing older workers to do more of the non-physical aspects of the job while others could do less.  They allowed people to do phased retirement…where they retired from their original job, but then came back to work.  Employees often returned to a different position and it was often part-time, but the company retained their employees’ vast knowledge and skills while allowing them to live the life they wanted to in their older years.  The result?  Turnover is now under 9 percent, employee engagement is in the 9oth percentile (according to a Gallup survey) and in their eyes most importantly they scored in the 90th percentile for patient satisfaction.

According to Bonnie Shelor, Sr. Vice President, Human Resources, they felt they needed to change and become more flexible because:

“the generation today as well as the older generation…don’t want the work style that has become, I guess, the norm.  And that has been born out in research after research, and we know that from our own employees.”

Happy Employees = Higher Profits

Just ask President and CEO of Solix, Inc John Parry.  When he took over, they had a 15-20 percent turnover rate and 5 percent absenteeism.  But what most struck him was how unhappy the employees were.  Why?  Well, they were working under some arcane rules.  One was that the office opened at 8am and closed at 6pm.  Period.  As he met with every of his 200 employees, he heard over and over that in New Jersey where traffic is a major issue, getting to work by 8am and leaving at 6pm was making people very cranky.  When asked why Solix was operating this way he was told that workers needed supervision. Period.  He looked his managers in the eye and told them that if the employees were trusted to make million dollar decisions (which many were), they could certainly be trusted to do their jobs without someone standing over them 8-6.  Now employees can work when they want.   As for profitability, John says, “Profitability is a good thing, particularly if you’re a CEO and want to sick around for a while.”  He’s been around for 6 years and has grown the company from 200 to 850 employees.

Attracting & Keeping Top Talent

John Deere wanted a workforce that was results-oriented and creative.  In order to get and keep them they felt they needed to provide a mutually beneficial workplace where people and results were valued and sitting in a chair was not.  Their biggest challenge was changing the perception that those who wanted more flexibility at work were not “lazy.” In fact, those workers were innovative thinkers.  They could see beyond the “this is how we do it,” to the “this is how it can be done.”   John Deere has accomplished that now with their salaried workers.  They are now challenging their line workers and managers to think creatively and empowering them to create their own version of flexibility.  And they continue to be an employer of choice in a business that many think cannot possibly be flexible.

Breakdowns are Bad for Business

Just ask Rich Sheriden, the founder of Menlo Innovations.  When he realized he was not the manager he wanted to be he decided he could leave or he could change things.  He admits he chose the more difficult task.  Turning his company into one that spreads joy among employees, customers and himself.  He subscribes strongly to Peter Drucker’s management philosophy that companies need to be flexible to succeed and he also follows the lean manufacturing philosophy which says never to operate at 100 percent.

“If I require a flexible workforce, then I have to create a flexible business that accomodates the needs of human beings…And if you need to be flexible, then you cannot operate at 100 percent…because if something breaks down, where do you find the capacity to fix it?  Not to mention if you work people many hours for too long on software projects…it actually creates more work…to fix all the bugs that are created when your workforce is tired.”

At Menlo, no one person is responsible for any project.  And they get moved to work with different partners on different projects regularly.  So when an employee wanted to hike in Columbia for 6 months…no problem once the project he was on was over.  When he returned from his trip he was put on a new project.  In 10 years Rich Sheriden has never had to deny a vacation request.   He should also be proud of his sick leave policy…”If you’re sick don’t come in.”  And as Menlo has an open office plan with shared computers, that policy just makes good business sense.

Some of the other things I learned from employers at the “Focus on Flexibility” conference:

  • Flexibility comes in all size companies–the companies featured in this post range from 50 to 50,000 employees.
  • Listening is key– most of Solix’s change has come from the CEO listening to employees.  They can ask the CEO a question anonymously anytime and he will answer them within 48 hours.
  • Family flexibility does not mean dependent children only – at Bon Secours grandchildren are also eligible for on-site daycare.
  • Telecommuting does not work for everyone – Solix piloted a telecommuting program where people worked from home and came in the office once a month.  It failed miserably.  Workers wanted to be in the office more.  So they changed the program so people can work 2-3 days from home and 2-3 days in the office.  And it is now very successful.
  • Flexibility isn’t only about women…even after child birth. It was fun to see Menlo’s CEO beaming with pride over the two awards his company has won for encouraging and accommodating breastfeeding in the workplace.