The term “flexibility” conjures up a short list of familiar arrangements: job sharing, a compressed schedule, and telecommuting are among the most well known. Experts say that the common features of workplace flexibility are changing to meet the demands of the 21st century workplace.
The recent recession has created some unexpected momentum for flexible working. While workers may have chosen to forego flexibility out of fear of losing their job, many companies were feeling pressure to find ways to work more efficiently. Meryl Rosenthal, CEO and President of FlexPaths, says in our global economy where employees are working 24/7, employers are now faced with rethinking when, where and how work is done. Fortunately, technology advances such as the use of video chat and shared desktops are helping companies create more efficiency to support virtual team structures based on skills, not location.
Meryl notes that there has been heightened dialog and legislation about flexible working, both domestically and internationally. “European countries, for example have highly formalized government regulated processes for flexible working requests,” she says. “Here in the United States, we tend to shy away from seeking government regulation in the public and private sector, however, we are beginning to see signs of regulation in the government sector.”
“It’s a very different world today than it was a few years ago when employers were hiring more aggressively,” says Linda Roundtree, president of Roundtree Consulting. “But there are organizations with flexible workplace cultures where you can find options for how, when and where you work. Their names are on lists such as the Sloan Awards for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility and 100 Best Companies published annually by Fortune and Working Mother. These are places that have an interest in bringing in people who want to work differently.”
Flexibility may matter more than ever to today’s workers. Linda sees a generational shift in thinking about work and work/life integration. “I discovered through focus groups with younger workers that they aren’t as interested in jumping from job to job and eventually to self-employment, like so many Gen X workers. Rather, Gen Y workers often said they would love to stay with a really good employer, but flexibility is key to building that long term relationship.”
“Flexibility used to be something employers provided only for people in a crisis situation, or as an accommodation for highly skilled workers,” says Linda. “Now, the new face of flexibility is driven by a team approach, in workplaces where flexibility becomes a practical tool to help get things done.”
The Obama administration and the president himself have signaled leadership and support for workplace flexibility. President Obama noted that many employers still believe that a more flexible workplace is a more profitable workplace, while the White House Council of Economic Advisors found that flexibility can produce lower turnover, lower absenteeism, higher productivity and healthier workers.
The new face of flexibility is gender-neutral, as employers recognize the many dynamics that affect the 21st century workplace. As President Obama said, “Workplace flexibility isn’t just a women’s issue. It’s an issue that affects the well-being of our families and the success of our businesses. It affects the strength of our economy—whether we’ll create the workplaces and jobs of the future we need to compete in today’s economy.”
Make Flexibility Work For You
For women who are looking for companies at the leading edge of workplace flexibility, Meryl and Linda have some advice:
- Pay attention to lists like the “100 Best Companies” by Working Mother and similar lists published by Fortune, Forbes and Money Magazine. The companies that appear on those lists have already made the connection between flexibility, employee engagement and the bottom line.
- Look for women two or three levels above where you would start in the organization. Are they taking advantage of flexible work solutions? If you can identify women in leadership roles in the organization who are utilizing innovative solutions, you can bet the company is walking the walk and not just talking the talk.
- Get familiar with technologies that support collaboration and teamwork for workers who are physically distant. From Skype to SharePoint, wikis to widgets, companies are implementing a wide variety of new technologies to facilitate the virtual workplace.
- Set goals for yourself and measure results. With flexibility comes responsibility. Know how to communicate the results of your work effectively to build strong relationships with colleagues, clients and supervisors whether you are in the office or connected from afar.