Managing flexibility down the line

by 07 Aug 2007

As demand for more flexibility at work increases, HR should work with line managers to improve the work-life balance of employees, writes Megan Nettleton, VP of HR at GE Commercial Finance

With our lowest unemployment rate in 30 years, a booming economy and a workforce with growing demands on their expectations of employers, organisations choosing to take the issue of work-life flexibility seriously will place themselves at the head of the pack.

Many organisations now have formal work-life flexibility policies and procedures, including formal options to work part-time, work from home, job sharing, changing the start and finish times of their workday and compressing the work weeks. All of these are great ways to help create a strong culture of work-life flexibility. They allow employees the options of formally applying for, and putting in place, options to suit their current work and personal circumstances.

The HR function should partner with a business or line leader to own and champion these policies. Having a line manager publicly and visibly displayed as the owner of such policies helps to ensure the business does not just see the issue of work-life flexibility as an HR responsibility alone.

Key to having such policies is ensuring there are fair and robust processes in place to review and make decisions on applications. The HR function must play a critical role in ensuring that this happens by helping line managers understand the implications for their business unit or department if such formal plans are put in place.

More importantly though, the HR function has a responsibility to be the line manager’s conscience in many circumstances and ensure they don’t take the easy option and refuse such requests. This does not, however, mean saying yes to all applications without considering the impact a flexible work arrangement will have on the business, its customers and other employees.

Quite the opposite, HR should be asking line managers these questions but if they fail to hear a reasonable reason as to why the business, customers or other employees may be negatively impacted then their role is to advocate for the arrangement. HR should also play a role in ensuring that any formal flexible working arrangement is established on a trial basis so both the business and the employee can take the time to see if it is working. Being a neutral third-party in review meetings is also important.

HR must also help line managers understand that work-life flexibility for many employees is fluid and changes for them as their personal circumstances change. If an employer is able to be adaptable then there is a greater chance the employee will continue to stay with an organisation over a longer period of time.

By far though, one of the most important aspects of having a strong culture that supports work-life flexibility is having a CEO and senior leadership team who actually believe in it. This helps to create a strong culture of informal work-life flexibility arrangements.

A shelf (or intranet) full of the most forward thinking flexible work-life policies will certainly help an organisation become more flexible in the way it thinks about and helps employees to manage their work with their personal lives. However, absolutely nothing can equal the real belief of a CEO or leadership team supporting it.

When the CEO and senior leadership team really believe in it, they create and foster an environment where employees feel they have organisational permission to not only ask for a formal flexible working arrangement, but are working in an environment which offers recognition and rewards based on output and results; not on time spent in the office or behind a computer. This can be most easily gauged by employee feedback surveys where staff rate statements such as: “I feel my immediate manager supports me when I need some time off to take care of personnel needs” and “I feel my organisation allows me the flexibility I need to manage my time for my work goals and personal needs.”

Many employees have experienced being asked if they have ‘slept in’ or if they are ‘having a half day’ when they arrive at 10am after dropping their kids off at school. When senior leaders publicly speak up and condemn comments like these, they let their employees know that work is not where you go (and at what time) but what you do. It also helps create a culture that gives ‘organisational permission’ for people to have work-life flexibility.

HR has an important role to play in not only educating leaders around the negative impact these comments can have on employee morale, but to help them understand that such attitudes, over time, will help decrease the organisation’s ability to attract and retain talent. HR should also ensure that commitment to all of the above is as important as all other aspects of a role when leadership appointments are made. If it’s made clear to leadership candidates when they apply for roles that this is non-negotiable then it becomes pretty easy to make selection decisions; people who don’t have that belief will often self-select out.

Megan Nettleton is a member of Human Resourcesmagazine’s editorial board