Stop Watching the Clock – Why Your Business Needs to be Flexible to Succeed

May 7, 2013

Published in Business New Hampshire

Anne-Marie Slaughter bursts our collective bubble by telling us “Why Women Still Can’t Have it All.” Melissa Mayer puts a stop to telecommuting at Yahoo, and Best Buy follows into the fray. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook, goes on the talk show circuit to hawk her book “Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead.” Suddenly, the Twitter stream is well, atwitter, with comments about the American workplace, the good, the bad and the ugly.

Not only are we focused on attracting, hiring and training employees, we are engaging in more meaningful conversation about what workers want and need to be successful and how employers can retain valuable employees, many of whom are reportedly on the watch for the next best thing. Businesses of course focus on the bottom line but also strive to be “Best Places to Work.”

Statistics show that nearly 70% of employees at all levels are either looking for a new job or are at least open to a new opportunity.  In surveys, even greater numbers describe themselves as disengaged from their jobs and company culture. New Hampshire is currently the fourth oldest state with a median age of over 40. Companies are struggling with the prospect of finding employees to replace the skills of retiring baby boomers, and young families are leaving the state. The economy has been in a slump for several years and is rebounding more slowly than anyone would like. The economy we do have is a global one with what seems to be a need for 24/7 availability on the part of workers at all levels, and we are connected electronically as never before.

With all of this going on, the savvy employer is asking what employees want. Closely following behind fair and adequate compensation are flexible hours and telecommuting, the opportunity to use their skills and a sense of purpose at work. The 2012 National Study of Employers funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation shows that employers have increased flexibility measures such as flex time and extended caregiving and personal leave considerably since 2005.

So, what is the business case for flexibility which has drawn these employers in? What are they expecting a flexible workplace to accomplish?

•Attract and Retain committed employees and great talent
•Increase Employee Morale and Job Satisfaction
•Increase Productivity
•Reduce turnover and costs of recruiting and training
•Increase availability to overseas customers and other important stakeholders moving away from “normal business hours”
•Reduce fixed costs for office space and other infrastructure

The next question is why a company like Yahoo apparently could not make telecommuting and flexibility work.  How does a company succeed with a workplace strategy that depends on people doing their jobs autonomously and delivering results? Failures are usually the result of poor employee selection and bad or non-existent management. Try this:

•Start with a few of your best performers and test the waters.
•Hire well. Put your effort into recruiting the right person for the right job. Pay competitive salaries, offer good benefits and attract the best.
•Stress the importance of communication.  When people are on different schedules and in different places, it takes superb technology and a lot of work to exchange ideas and complete projects successfully.
•Set the ground rules in advance. Employees and managers should collaborate to set expectations of one another. Make sure these expectations align with your current workplace policies and business strategy.
•Make sure the manager is on board.  It does no good to give an employee top of the line technology if the employee’s manager does not know how to use it. Assigning a telecommuting or flex time employee to a manager who believes that “face time” is critical is a recipe for disaster.
•Be open and up front about your expectations of the employee, and address problem performance or behavior quickly.  Out of sight out of mind is not an option.
•Evaluate employees based on clearly established expectations and outcomes. Determine what the measure of success is in your business (sales, client encounters, billable hours, project completion, customer service survey results) and evaluate the success of the employee relationship based on that.

The world has changed, as Gen Y constantly reminds us, and the business community is working hard to keep up. One of the major initiatives of the Society for Human Resource Management (“SHRM”) in partnership with the Families and Work Institute has been to educate employers on how best to find a flexible workplace solution that fits the needs of the company and its employees without a “one size fits all” legislative mandate.  The word is getting out, and there are many ways flexibility can enhance the New Hampshire Advantage by keeping young families who are clamoring for flexibility and older workers who would like to work differently but remain engaged in their workplaces in the state.  Flexibility and telecommuting do not work for all jobs at all times, but this is a discussion which should continue, for the benefit of us all. No, we can’t have it all, but we can all do better.

Charla Bizios Stevens is a Shareholder and Director in the Employment Practice Group of the McLane Law Firm. She is also the state director for the HR State Council of New Hampshire. She can be reached at 603-628-1363 or at