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Workplace Flexibility Options Can Boost Profits and Curb Turnover, Proponents Say

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

By Rhonda Smith  

Proponents of workplace flexibility May 22 encouraged employers and federal policymakers to embrace strategies that offer employees more wiggle room when it comes to when and where they work.

Telecommuting, flextime, part-time work, job sharing, and compressed schedules are “good for the bottom line,” Henry G. “Hank” Jackson, president and chief executive officer of the Society for Human Resource Management, said during a congressional briefing on Capitol Hill.

“A light has come on and the facts are clear: workplace flexibility is not just a benefit, a nice thing to do,” he said. “It's a business imperative, because flexible strategies boost productivity; increase employee engagement and morale; lower turnover, absenteeism, office space [use], and overhead costs.”

Although they did not attend the event, Sens. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and Mike Crapo (R-Idaho) were listed as supporters of the briefing, which included representatives from SHRM, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York City, and Solix Inc., a New Jersey-based company that its CEO said reduced employee turnover and absenteeism rates after implementing workplace flexibility strategies.

Working Parents Face 'Time Famine'

“Across the board, working parents report they are experiencing a time famine,” because they have little time for their children, spouses, or themselves, said Kathleen E. Christensen, a program director and leading expert on workplace flexibility at the Sloan Foundation, which has provided millions of dollars to fund efforts that address the gap between the needs of families and the demands of U.S. workplaces.

“This time famine leads many working parents to feel that they have to choose between being a good parent and being a good worker,” said Christensen, who moderated the event. Ultimately, she said, “The results are often not good for business: when the pressures of trying to fulfill basic parenting responsibilities collide with the demands of rigid work schedules, employees are late, call in absent, or just quit.”

Working parents are not the only employees experiencing frustration, said Christensen. “Older workers want to stay in the workplace, but not on a full-time, full-year basis,” she said. “People with disabilities want to continue to be productive members of society, but also want to be able to work fewer hours, or work at home so they can manage their job and their health.

“The faith-based community wants to be able to practice their religions, but praying five times a day, leaving work before sundown on Fridays, or taking off for Ash Wednesday mass all require a level of flexibility that many employees do not have,” Christensen said. “And finally, the Gen Xers and Gen Yers, perhaps having seen how their parents work, want to ensure that they have successful lives as well as successful careers. Either/or does not appeal to them.”

Jackson said current labor law hinders workplace innovation. For example, he said, the Family and Medical Leave Act has not kept pace with today's changing workforce. “It was an excellent idea,” he said, “but it could be tweaked substantially to assist with how the workplace functions today.”

Flexibility Helped Employer

John C. Parry Jr., CEO of Solix, a business process outsourcing firm in Parsippany, N.J., said workplace flexibility initiatives have helped the company succeed.

Solix's workplace flexibility efforts include allowing workers to telecommute. “It really doesn't matter where you do the work from if you trust your people,” Parry said. “Face time” is less important than “employee output,” he explained, and the latter is easy to document.

Solix employees also have the option of using compressed workweeks. In addition, employees can ease into retirement by working three or four days a week for as long as they choose, Parry said.

Today, Solix, which was once “barely profitable,” is now a $105 million-a-year corporation that reduced employee turnover, absenteeism rates, and has never had a layoff, he said.

“The biggest harm to the competitiveness of a company is the noise in the system--when people aren't thinking about the job because they are thinking about what's happening at home,” he added.

By Rhonda Smith  

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