It’s been over sixty years since Peter Drucker wrote his landmark book, Concept of the Corporation. It is an exhaustive study of the world’s most successful business enterprise at the time-General Motors. Drucker wrote about GM’s effective business practices, mostly guided by the steady hand of Alfred Sloan, arguably one of the finest leaders in American business. Drucker saw GM as a model for how a corporation was best organized, how to best train employees, and the role of the supervisor. Many of these ideas, ground-breaking then, have stood the test of time.
Yet even Mr. Drucker, when he wrote this seminal book, could not have imagined six decades later the dramatic changes that have impacted the world of work. Organizational structures are remarkably varied, there are a myriad of training and development options for workers, and some staff work in matrix-type organizations or self-directed teams where the title “supervisor” gets a bit murky. One concept that may have not been important back then, but is now increasingly critical when it comes to creating a highly engaged, productive workplace, is flexibility.
Yes, our workplaces have to be more flexible to meet the needs of today’s workforce. We never should have assumed that we could meet everyone’s needs with the same programs and approach to leading a team. In the industrial era of mass production and factory lines flexibility wasn’t necessarily a key business driver. But with an increasingly diverse workforce in the information age we need to find ways to help each employee be successful at work while, at the same time, acknowledging and accommodating their needs. To do so requires more flexibility.
In the course of our research into America’s Best-Places-to-Work, we identified that an employer’s ability to genuinely care for employees and to proactively work to support their well being as an emerging and critical driver of employee engagement. In workspan magazine we talked about the changing landscape of what is important to employees and concluded: “It’s not all about dollars and cents. A flexible workplace is increasingly seen as another important benefit.”[i]
How does a flexible workplace feel and sound? What follows are remarks from employees who work at companies that have been consistently recognized as exceptional, highly engaged, workplaces, collected by Quantum Workplace of Omaha, Nebraska. To begin, read this comment from a woman who describes how her employer addressed the severe medical problem she was facing:
“The company is very good about rearranging work hours to fit life situations. I had a hernia operation that put me out of commission for a few weeks and they were very good about moving my hours around to accommodate the recovery. And everyone sent food and cards and well wishes. It is a real family organization.”
In the next case an employee commented about the multitude of scheduling options available. Note how achieving a quality work output was not sacrificed because the employer provided a flexible schedule:
“My direct supervisor allows me to be flexible with my work hours (8 am-5 pm vs. other variations as demands outside the workplace arise) and location (home vs. office or mix of both in one day) so long as my job is getting done and getting done at the appropriate level of quality. This lets me know that work-life balance is understood as important and valued. It encourages me to work that much harder because I know how lucky I am to have the flexibility and I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize having it.”
Here’s a younger employee just entering the workplace commenting about how his manager met his need to juggle work and school. The attitude of the employer is particularly noteworthy:
“When I decided to relocate back to my college hometown to finish my degree, my manager immediately began making plans to have me work remotely part-time. In addition, he has been incredibly flexible regarding my hours as they are subject to change semester to semester. At previous employers I would have been made to feel as if the company was doing me a tremendous favor; here, it was handled as if it was the most natural course to take. Both he and the company have been very supportive of my goals as an individual while retaining my contributions as an employee. I am now completing my first semester back at college while working 20 hours a week remotely with monthly visits back to the office, and could not be happier.”
Another way employers can be flexible is by empowering talented employees to do their jobs. Here’s how one employee describes her experience:
“I am given a reasonable amount of responsibility and allowed to do my job and complete necessary tasks the way that works best for me and my team…with support from my supervisors and without being micro-managed.”
Finally, one employee makes the business case for flexible work hours where he works:
“This is a great place to work. The stress level is not high and the flexible working hours work well for parents, resulting in a much lower rate of absenteeism. “
These folks make a strong case for employers to be more flexible in accommodating the needs of employees. These employees, and many more just like them, value a workplace that, among other things, offers them flexibility.
Some leaders will have difficulty understanding this emerging movement, believing that flexibility threatens a loss of control and what they see as the best way to get work done. They may still be stuck in an inflexible “concept of the corporation” that no longer serves the enterprise well. Thankfully, the evidence is mounting that more flexible workplaces are the ones that are better able to attract, retain and develop employees, advantages not to be ignored in a competitive marketplace.
There is much to be done in this area. We applaud organizations such as EmployFlex.com for their efforts in highlighting companies that are committed to creating flexible workplaces– workplaces that work for all.
We would love to hear from you about how your employer is addressing the issue of workforce flexibility!
Mark Hirschfeld and Leigh Branham, The Benefits of Employee Engagement
, in workspan
magazine, May, 2010, page 76.