3 Steps to Make Work+Life Flexibility Really Succeed for Your Business and Your People

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I’ve decided that every time I read an article, study or blog post that talks about how people don’t have meaningful access to flexibility, how managers don’t support flexibility, and/or how flexibility policies don’t match the actual practice in the business (this week here and here), I’m going to re-publish the following article on my blog.  It originally appeared in our “Make Flexibility Real”  newsletter (click here to subscribe), and clearly outlines the three steps that:

  • Give people access to flexibility
  • Create buy-in and understanding from managers and
  • Make flexibility a meaningful part of the actual practice of the business.

I will keep posting it for as long as it takes to get the message across:  Work+life flexibility will not become part of the culture, help business achieve its goals and people manage their work+life fit by writing a policy, running a program, conducting a training session or putting a toolkit on the website.  That only happens with an approach along the lines of the following…

The Flex Strategy “Turducken.”  What?  The Backstory

It all started during a team discussion about the best way to present our next phase recommendations to a client.  In an attempt to wrap them under a unifying concept, FSG partner, Donna Miller, pointed out, “It’s a policy wrapped in a process, wrapped in a strategy.  A veritable flexibility  ‘turducken’ if you will.” And, with that, the perfect metaphor for “strategic flexibility” was born. A turducken.

And just as a butcher creates a turducken by wrapping chicken inside duck, inside turkey, organizations make flexibility real when they wrap policies inside of  guidelines, inside of a a plan for implementation that’s linked to business objectives:

What does a flexibility strategy “turducken” look like in action?  Although every organization is different, here are some highlights by layer:

Step 1: Flexibility Policies (Chicken):  This is where most organizations start and many end.  They draft policies that lay out the approval, implementation and review parameters of the five discrete formal flexible work arrangements: flexible schedules, telecommuting, compressed workweeks, reduced schedules, and job sharing.  For example:

  • We define telecommuting as…/ We define a reduced schedule as…/
  • If you telecommute, the company will/will not reimburse certain expense
  • Every arrangement must be reviewed initially after 90 days and the every six months thereafter
  • If the arrangement is deemed unsatisfactory to either the manager or employee, it can be terminated immediately.

But these one-size-fits-all policies are often one-dimensional.  They fail to come to life because there’s no way to contextualize the flexibility to the unique realities of a particular business challenge, job or person.   This is where the next layer of the flex strategy “turducken” becomes important…

Step 2: Flexibility Process to Tailor Win-Win Solutions (Duck): This layer takes flexibility to the next level.  It provides consistent guidelines to think through what type of flexibility will or will not work for a job or person.  Flexibility processes also address issues of fairness.  While everyone is not guaranteed the same type of flexibility, everyone does follow the same process for consideration of a request.

Here’s an example of three common levels of guidelines.  They build upon one another to harness flexibility and create win-win, tailored solutions:

Level 1—Manager/HR: A process to guide a manager or HR’s approval of a request for one of the five standard, one-size-fits-all formal flexible work arrangements.  Managers and/or HR are prompted to consider the performance of the employee, whether it makes sense for the business, etc.   This is where most organizations begin, but at some point they make three important realizations:

  • Managers and HR can’t come up with a flexibility plan that is going to work for each individual person,
  • The five, one-size-fits-all formal flexible work arrangements are too rigid.  They don’t allow the creativity required to tailor a solution that meets the work+life fit needs of the individual and the needs of the business, and,
  • Most of the time people don’t need to formally change the way they are working.  They just want to make small, flexible adjustments in how, when and where they work day-to-day.

That leads to the creation of…

Level 2—Employee Work+Life Fit: A process that helps an employee take the lead to determine what type of formal and day-to-day flexibility will help them manage their work+life fit. These guidelines help them think through how, when and/or where they want to work, how their job will get done, etc  before talking to their manager and team.

Unfortunately, in many organizations, these employee-based guidelines only focus on work considerations and leave out personal realities that will also impact the success of flexibility.  This incomplete picture is the reason that I wrote my book, Work+Life:  Finding the Fit That’s Right for You. I wanted to help individuals create a solution with the greatest likelihood of success.

The processes in levels 1 and 2 address the individual’s need for flexibility to manage their personal work+life fit.  But how do organizations harness this same flexibility to deal with business challenges?  This is the next level of flexibility process…

Level 3—Team-based Innovation: A few companies are providing teams with guidelines to help tailor win-win solutions that use flexibility to target business challenges.  The process shows leaders, managers and employees how to engage in an ongoing conversation that rethinks rigid ways of working. Together they create flexible, innovative solutions.  For example, creating a rotating telework schedule to deal with overcrowding in the office, or a flexible shift schedule for global client coverage to ensure people aren’t “on call” all of the time.

This brings us to the final level of strategic flexibility.  You can have the best policies and guidelines, but they won’t have much impact unless there’s a…

Step 3: Plan for Strategic Implementation (Turkey): This is the piece of the “turducken” that too few organizations develop and execute.   Without a plan that creates readiness, links flexibility to other management practices, rewards buy in, communicates broadly, etc. flexibility will not become a meaningful part of an organization’s culture and way of operating.   Like laying a piece of paper on top of water, it floats but never penetrates.

Flexibility implementation must be intentional, have a clearly articulated impact on the business and its people, and be able to be measured.  Depending upon the unique goals of the organization, it might include:

  • Creating a shared vision of flexibility that answers the questions “why do we need it?” and “what does it look like here?”
  • Aligning work processes, management structures and rewards
  • Linking flexibility to leadership competencies
  • Encouraging a culture of shared responsibility versus top-down hierarchy

There’s more, but it gives you a sense of some of the key elements for deep and broad buy-in and impact.

Just as a butcher creates a turducken by wrapping chicken inside duck, inside turkey, organizations must link policy, process and strategy if they want to make flexibility real.

Has your organization completed all three steps of the flex strategy “turducken?”  If not, what’s missing?

For more, I invite you to sign up to receive the “Make Flexibility Real” newsletter via email, to visit my Fast Company blog, and to join me on Twitter @caliyost.