Kyra Cavanaugh, president of Life Meets Work, contributed this post as a Featured Guest Blogger. This is the seventh  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.

“What’s Next?”  That’s what everyone wanted to know at the Focus on Workplace Flexibility conference in Washington, D.C. last November.

It was the hot topic of the blogger luncheon where key figures in the work/life field brainstormed ways to carry forward the national conversation on flex.

It was the buzz around the Corcoran Gallery before the panel discussion featuring Ted Childs, Valerie Jarrett, Admiral Mike Mullen and Claire Shipman.

We felt it in the pit of our stomachs when the Sloan Foundation announced it was redirecting its funding, research and advocacy work to another critical frontier in work/life—that of aging and the workplace.

It was on display during the conference’s panels, where a range of companies explained their struggles and visions for what flex really looks like, and where leaders from government agencies, the disabled, unions and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) recommitted themselves to promoting flex for the benefit of their constituents.

And the crucial question of “What’s Next?” was specifically raised by Kathleen Christensen, Program Director at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, in her opening remarks at the conference.

Why that question and why now?

For the last 15 years, the Sloan Foundation has invested $120 million in more than 350 projects focused on work/life issues.  And that investment paid dividends in elevating the profile and the visibility of workplace flexibility issues—all the way to the White House.

It brought us sound research that built the business case for and framed flex as a critical business strategy.  It moved us beyond gender and family stereotypes, to a case of flexibility for all.  It funded critical partnerships with the industry’s leading institutions and highlighted best practices through the Sloan Awards for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility.

In recent years, however, it’s become clear that this is not enough.  Despite the sound data, companies are slow to adopt flexible workplace practices.  The media has grown weary of covering work/life stories.  Companies continue to lose productivity during a string of blizzards on the east coast because they won’t build telework into their contingency plans.  Employees at award-winning workplaces continue to lament their lack of flexibility.  And Chrysula Winegar, in the sixth blog post of this series, reminds us of more compelling reasons to implement flex and wonders when it will change.

“Businesses of all sizes have proven that flexible workplaces are the most effective workplaces. [Despite this], 80 percent of Americans say they want workplace flexibility, but only a third report having it,” stated Kathleen Christensen at the conference.

So understandably, we wonder, “What’s next?”   We ask the companion question, “When will companies finally get it?”

There are big barriers to adopting and sustaining flexible workplace practices within an organization.  As Jennifer Fraone, Assistant Director of the Boston College Center for Work & Family, so adeptly pointed out in the fifth post of this blog series, we need to shift our focus from the WHY to the HOW.

If Flex 1.0 was about convincing companies to implement flexible work policies and programs, Flex 2.0 is about helping companies overcome internal barriers in order to make flex a living, breathing part of their organizations.

What are the key components of Flex 2.0?

  • Re-engage senior leadership.  For many businesses, implementing a flexible work policy or program served a specific need.  “It’s like they checked the box, and moved onto other things,” one award-winning company told us recently.   Senior leaders need to understand that flex is different than other HR-related programs.  It’s not enough to sign off on the program, they need to visibly support it and invest resources to help it grow within the organization.
  • Help managers overcome resistance. Changing when and where employees work feels like a direct threat to a manager’s primary goal: to make sure the work gets done.  Accustomed to face time and relationship-driven cultures, it’s difficult for them to imagine how flexible work teams can help improve results.  What’s more, it exposes their management weaknesses and challenges them to translate their style for mobile and remote teams.  Organizations need to offer workshops for managers and provide a venue for them to express concerns, as well as tools and tactics for managing flex teams.
  • Decentralize flex. Decentralize your flex program, empowering teams to choose their own flex work arrangements and style.   Train managers on how to build their own flex teams, and implement supports for managers such as accountability partners and brown-bag lunches where they can compare notes and share ideas.
  • Build a flex culture.  The entire organization needs to see the direct link between flex and performance at their level.  As these and other strategies gain steam within the organization, the emphasis of flex programs will move from program tracking and exceptionalism (as in “I’m on a flexible work arrangement”) to a culture where everyone has the opportunity to flex based on their individual performance, position requirements and business needs.
  • Identify the latent need for flex in your organization.  It’s not enough to measure your employee’s interest in and need for flex based on employee engagement surveys, usage rates, exit interview feedback and employee resource groups (ERG).  Since 36 percent of all employees worry about the ramifications of requesting flex, then it’s hard to know that they need it.  Access this free assessment tool to measure the gap between the number of employees who would like to flex but don’t, and those who do.
  • Build a cross-functional senior flex team. With real estate running telework programs in many companies, IT owning the flex infrastructure, and Work/Life and HR heading up flex policies, it would be natural that these teams work together to advance flex initiatives.  Not so in most organizations.  Flex 2.0 will require these departments to come together to build a cross- functional team and collaborate to support the company’s flex culture.
  • Research focus on implementation. As a vice-president of HR recently said to us,

“I understand the value of flex and I see the end result that I need to achieve.  What’s not at all clear is how to get there.”

Future research projects must focus on demystifying the implementation process, identifying effective manager engagement strategies, changing management practices that work and identifying the successful elements of truly flexible work cultures.  Only then will flexible work become a mainstream reality for America’s workers.

For more information about the concepts discussed in this blog, please visit:  Read, “The Squishy Middle Manifesto” and get implementation tips in the e-book “75 Ways to Flex.”  And if you’d like to use a video to present the business case in less than 3 minutes, check out our Flex Force video.