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Flex work policies

November 16, 2015

By Joe DeSantis, courtesy of SBAM Approved Partner ASE

Two years ago when Yahoo and HP made major news by disbanding their telecommuting policies, many workplace observers figured it was the end of the marriage of convenience between home computing and workplace practice. Times were still tough coming out of the Great Recession, both companies felt beleaguered, and both brain trusts decided that too much telecommuting was undermining teamwork. It was time to literally call everyone back in. However, some recent research from WorldatWork suggests that it wasn’t even the end of the honeymoon, much less the marriage. Flexible work arrangements in general are still alive and well, says the research.

But it also uncovered the possibility of a heretofore hidden issue. Most employers profess to support flexible work in any or all its forms: primarily telecommuting, but also flex scheduling, job sharing, compressed workweeks, part-time, etc. The WorldatWork survey claims 80% of employers support flex work practices; ASE’s 2015/2016 Michigan Policies & Benefits Survey puts it at 57% of Michigan respondents.

However, according to the WorldatWork survey, only 37% of those same employers have formalized their policies.

It is as if these policies, which exist fundamentally to accommodate individual employee needs, would undermine their own purpose if they were codified. Being able to allow a single employee on a given date to work from home for any number of reasons—personal or family obligations, the need to escape distractions to do some demanding individual work—seems to be as far as companies prefer to go on telecommuting. Accommodating an individual’s or specific group’s need to flex-schedule falls into the same category. If you try to write out all the requirements needed to scale these practices up to  organization-wide, you can end up splitting the baby, i.e., making everyone unhappy by trying to make everyone happy.

According to the WorldatWork survey, no less than two out of three respondents offer flexibility at their individual discretion. Realistically, however, the problems you take on by trying to keep such policies informal and decentralized will sooner or later undermine their purpose as surely as making them too formal will do the same thing. For example, how do you make sure individual managers will not fall into the trap of playing favorites? How fair is it if one department manager grants telecommunicating privileges relatively liberally while another grants them not at all or nearly not at all?

WorldatWork’s Rose Stanley offers the following features that need to be present in formalized flex working policies:

A rationale for the policy: Why is it needed? What are its objectives?

Eligibility criteria or requirements: Which employees are eligible for the program?

Request process: What is the process for requesting a flexible work schedule?

Benefit options: What type of flexible programs will you offer, and to which groups?

Potential impact to total employee compensation: How will it affect an employee’s salary or benefits?

Review process: How often will the policy, and the specific arrangements, be reviewed?

Reasons why the company may terminate the policy or the individual worker arrangement.

Other details: How overtime will be monitored; how data privacy will be protected for both the individual and the employer. Also, any policy should include language that reaffirms the employee’s basic at-will status.

As with any employee policy, the key player in making a formal flex-work policy successful is not the HR department; it is the front-line manager even when the ultimate yea/nay decisions may be made further up the management chain. That is because so often that decision will still be a matter of judgment on someone’s part. And the person who knows the worker best, and therefore the likelihood of the worker respecting the policy’s rules and requirements, is the first line supervisor. So your first line supervisors need to be thoroughly trained not just on the rules of the policy but also how the rules should be applied in practice. It is no easy task.

Flex policies are here to stay, and since they are here to stay they need to be formalized. But wise policy makers know that they need to find the sweet spot between necessary rules that support standard application of the policy, and the individual discretion needed to make it work the best for the greatest number of people.

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