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Creating an Effective Flexible Work Environment

By Susan R. Heylman   5/15/2013
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NEW ORLEANS—“Flexibility is an incredible tool,” Kelly Hughes, an attorney in Ogletree Deakins’ Charlotte, N.C., office told attendees May 9 at the firm’s 2013 Workplace Strategies seminar. “It shows you value your employees, and in return you get loyalty.”

What is workflex? “People think of workflex as a program, but it’s a process for solving problems and increasing effectiveness and efficiency in and out of work,” explained Kenneth Matos, senior director of employment research and practice at the Families and Work Institute. Think of workflex as a dynamic partnership between employers and employees that defines how, when and where work gets done in ways that work for all—including families, clients and communities, he said.

The Effective Workplace

Workflex is part of an effective workplace that focuses on all aspects of an organization. Be aware of its effect on managers and co-workers, however. A mistake employers make in setting up a workflex schedule for one employee is that they consider that employee only, when they should talk with supervisors as well as co-workers.

Consider all the stakeholders and communicate with all of them. “Team discussions are so critical,” Hughes emphasized, and all parties—management, supervisors, the employee and co-workers—must discuss flexible schedules that complement the team’s sequence of work and develop collaborative styles that incorporate remote work or mobile offices.

Have strategies in place that include explicit and open rules about the requirements for employee eligibility for time and place flexibility, including shift or task trading, reduced time and time off. For example, a strategy for time-management options should define the requirements and limitations for eligibility for shift or task trading, minimum and maximum hours, and the method for inputting and approving changes. Otherwise, shift swaps, especially, may become overwhelming for managers, Matos said.      

Reduced-time schedules help employees stay on during personal events or while they are enrolled in external educational or developmental programs and create opportunities for job trials with potential employees, such as veterans. When decreasing an employee’s workload, make sure to include assignments that will challenge and develop that individual. Also be sure to consider the impact on other programs that are tied to work hours.

For managing time off, Hughes and Matos advised that a workflex policy be explicit about how vacations are scheduled. Moreover, to reduce the need to communicate with an employee during his or her time off, cross-train staff to cover for one another, use shared file systems so others may access them as needed and develop pre-vacation checklists to tie up loose ends.

Cultivate a Positive Workflex Culture

To prevent the development of a culture where time put in at the office is valued over performance, be clear with staff about the business and personal value of workplace flexibility, said Matos. Do that by cultivating staff members’ creative problem-solving skills. Give them information, tools and resources to be effective. They, in turn, will help you develop flex processes that incorporate—not merely tolerate—flexible work.

Use pilot programs to learn how to put flexibility into practice, not as a way to decide whether to offer it. Make sure you start implementing workflex with ongoing mechanisms in place to collect feedback on what works and what needs to be improved.

To maintain momentum, continue to educate all of your managers, and create opportunities to recognize managers who promote flexibility. Hughes and Matos also suggest that you build workflex into the company’s accountability system and other key management systems. And don’t revoke flexibility as a punishment.  

Workflex is not just what you do for employees; it’s what you do with employees, said Hughes, and it’s very important not to let the conversation with employees break down. Always ask whether there is another way to make it work through open communication with all the stakeholders.

Susan R. Heylman, J.D., is a freelance legal writer and an editor based in the Washington, D.C., area.


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