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Four secrets of a successful flexible work arrangement policy

The future of work is flexible, and if your company wants to retain its employees, HR must understand how to make this work for employees -- and the company. Here's how.

Flexible work arrangements are popular now -- and they aren't a passing trend.

"The future of work is all about having the ability to access the right talent, at the right time, without the constraints of job descriptions, office walls or geographic boundaries," according to Rob Biederman, co-CEO and co-founder of Catalant, a workforce software provider.

That all sounds very modern and straightforward. Yet, many companies and their HR departments are stymied on how best to create a flexible work arrangement policy that actually works.

Here are four ways to help ensure success.

Know the benefits of flexible work arrangements

According to Peter Hirst, associate dean of executive education at MIT Sloan School of Management, offering workers flexibility holds a number of benefits. Spend time researching what they are so you understand what you hope to gain and how to create buy-in from upper management on the flexible work arrangement policy you plan to offer. As one example, these are the outcomes Sloan gained from offering remote work options to its staff:

  • 83% of employees found that collaboration was either not adversely impacted or actually improved through remote working and telepresence technology.
  • 90% said that support for their personal and family life had improved.
  • 86% reported that stress levels had reduced.
  • 100% recommended other departments should consider adopting similar flexible working policies and practices.

Principles of flexible work arrangements

As an illustration of how a flexible work arrangement can be structured to the benefit of employee and employer alike, consider MIT Sloan School of Management's flexible work principles as pioneered by Hirst:

  • Everyone has the option to work remotely at least two to three days per week. It is seen simply as how work is done and not as a special concession to a few individuals.
  • Wednesdays are "work in the office if you physically can" days.
  • Staff isn't required to work a strict 9-to-5 schedule but must be mindful of regular business hours and not expect others to match their unique working hours.
  • All meetings should have the capabilities for participants to join remotely, should be held during traditional "core" business hours (10 a.m. to 4 p.m.) when possible and should be balanced with being sympathetic to time zones of remote attendees.
  • Employees shouldn't feel that they need to be connected 24/7 regardless of what times they see other colleagues are working.

Clearly define the flexible work arrangement policy

According to the new "Future Workforce Report," released by freelancing website Upwork, many companies are embracing flexible work. Indeed, 63% of departments within the companies surveyed "have someone on their team who works a significant portion of the time remotely." Further, 38% of hiring managers predict that their employees will mostly work remotely within the next 10 years. Despite this, the majority (57%) lack a formal remote work policy.

"Companies should recognize that 'flexible' means something different for every organization," said Tammy Cohen, founder and chief visionary officer of InfoMart, a global background screening and HR services company.

"Company culture isn't a one-size-fits-all model. At the end of the day, you need to determine what variety of 'flexible' works for your company, and don't be afraid to think outside the box. Flexible is not only about working remotely and making your own hours."

Biederman said, regardless of the flexible work arrangement policy your company ultimately decides on, make sure you communicate expectations openly, clearly list goals and deadlines to reduce frustration on both sides and ensure that business needs are met.

Understand flexible work arrangement policy can't supplant great tech

Our policy is: Work as much as you'd like, whenever you'd like, from wherever you'd like, as long as you get your work done.
Cody SwannCEO, Gunner Technology

"Our policy is: Work as much as you'd like, whenever you'd like, from wherever you'd like, as long as you get your work done," said Cody Swann, CEO of Gunner Technology, a software development firm that builds JavaScript applications on AWS for the public and private sectors.

To enable those work options, companies must support employees with adequate work technology since poor-performing hardware or software provided by the employer will impede success. Many companies are failing in this area.

According to Randstad's recent Workmonitor Q1 survey, only about one-third (35%) of U.S. employees said their employer provides them with the technical equipment that enables them to adequately perform their job remotely.

As for measuring and evaluating results, Hirst argued: "Agility rather than productivity is the characteristic that should be measured, as it is one that will benefit not only the individual, but the company's success as a whole."

Know how to optimize popular flexible work arrangements

Employee experience programs. Similar to customer experience programs, employee experience focuses on the totality of workers' experiences, throughout the employee lifecycle. To get started in creating those programs, it can help to research generational needs, among other factors that affect employee experience. Although sweeping statements about generations cannot define employees, some use them as a starting point.

Rachel Harris-Russell, global head of corporate strategy for global staffing and recruitment firm Allegis Group, believes that many baby boomers "are winding down their careers by looking for flexible work as consultants and freelancers to complement their preretirement and retirement lifestyles." As for Generation X, according to Harris-Russell, after raising small children, they may seek employment opportunities that enable them to return to the workforce but stay devoted to their families. Millennials, she said, "may be looking for options that allow them life experiences that broaden their horizons and expand their networks, and Gen Zers are frequently looking for a variety of experiences through contract or freelance work to refine their budding careers." Offering flexible work arrangements enables companies to capitalize on the strengths of workers in different life stages.

Of course, contrary to these generalizations, some boomers may be raising young grandchildren, Generation Xers may be starting new careers they're excited to experience to the fullest, many millennials have young children and Generation Z is only just starting to enter the workforce. In other words, many other factors besides generational trends will determine each company's workforce needs and how best to satisfy those. And, in fact, a considerable amount of research supports focusing on the unique needs of individuals.

A key element to making a flexible workplace arrangement policy -- and employee experience -- a success is to engage employees. It is essential to make sure remote workers or employees who work in the office during off hours do not end up feeling isolated or rejected by the rest of the team.

"Our survey of deskless workers found that only 56% feel connected and engaged by their employers," said Jeff Corbin, CEO and founder of APPrise Mobile, a producer of an internal communications and employee engagement mobile platform.

"In industries like retail, manufacturing, healthcare or logistics ... feelings of isolation can creep in quickly and can lead to an apathetic outlook regarding employee sentiment and, ultimately, performance. On the flip side, 29% of respondents said that they would change how they feel about their employer or job if they were communicated with more or differently."

Improved employee engagement and communications generally lead to increased performance from higher morale, more frequent work updates, increased insights on processes and early problem detection.

Compressed work weeks. Compressed work schedules offer employees more time away from work without decreasing the amount of time they work. "Employees may work four 10-hour days with one day a week off. Another option is five nine-hour days with every other Friday off," said Robin Schwartz, managing partner of MFG Jobs, a manufacturing jobs board. "Adding an extra one or two hours onto their workday is worth an extra day off to many employees -- especially if the time off does not use up valuable vacation."

The benefits of compressed work weeks vary depending on your strategy. For example, if an entire department works a compressed work week, there could be energy savings on the days the office is shut down and quiet. In addition, employee morale improvements from more time off may lead to higher productivity, experts said. And the extra time off tends to cut down on absences for illness and personal business, which also leads to increased productivity.

Flex schedule. "With flexible scheduling, employers allow employees to come and go from the office at whatever time is most convenient for them as they work their required hours," Schwartz said. She said this can be particularly helpful for parents of children who have activities or are in daycare. To make it work, some companies will "have 'core' hours where all employees need to be in office. This is to avoid any disruptions in the workflow," Schwartz said.

There are many potential benefits of flex schedules. For one thing, trusting employees to set their schedules can increase employee morale and retention, as well as productivity. For example, employees may elect to work from home when mildly ill, keeping them productive but also protecting other workers from catching the illness, which, in turn, can raise productivity.

Summer Fridays. The practice of Summer Fridays refers to the practice of allowing employees to "leave the office early on Friday afternoons without making up the extra time," Schwartz said.

The practice can be used to lower cooling costs when energy costs the most -- in the summer. It can also be used as a reward system. And, like other forms of flexible work arrangements, it can boost morale.

This type of flexible work arrangement can even be used to relieve gig or temporary workers who do not qualify for paid vacation benefits, although there is another to side to this.

"This is not ideal for organizations with nonexempt employees because they are to be paid for hours worked only," Schwartz said.

That caveat underscores one of the most important factors in creating a flexible work arrangement policy: First and foremost, know your company's unique needs and goals.

This was last published in August 2018

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