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Flexibility in the Corporate Sector: Still a Business Imperative?

By Linda Basch, PhD*

The National Council for Research on Women hosted an expert panel 3 years ago called: Flex Practices as a Strategic Imperative. Since then, more and more companies have embraced flexible work arrangements (FWA) and the technology that supports them. But in the current economic climate, the question resurfaces: do companies need to continue to offer more innovative policies or will they become less flexible as budgets and payrolls are rolled back?
The answer at present seems to be a resounding yes to flex. From large financial services firms to IT and retail companies, more and more businesses are tearing down walls and cubicles to leverage today’s technology and 24/7 business cycle.
Policies vary from company to company but most corporations have had some form of FWA in place since the early to mid 2000’s. Citigroup started its worldwide program in 2005 opening up to all employees arrangements that had previously been available only to some individuals on a case by case basis. Lehman Brothers introduced in 2004 a standardized, company-wide work policy to increase flexibility for employees, creating models for part-time, shared, and other types of work structures. McKinsey and Company introduced the ‘Flexibility Center’ where managers and other experts help employees develop a work program that balances individual needs with overall efficiency goals. The law firm Sullivan & Cromwell’s initiated policies in 1987 that allowed reduced-hours and telecommuting. Like McKinsey, Sullivan & Cromwell provides a network of flex-time mentors who follow up regularly with their mentees and adjust schedules and technological supports, as needed.  Littler, noted as a leading law firm for women, offers a Flex Time Attorney Program designed to promote work-life balance allowing attorneys to work from home and set up their own work schedule and hours.
Today, more and more companies are fully integrating flexibility into the company culture. BDO, for example, has an official strategy: BDO Flex that uses a combination of formal arrangements, informal day-to-day flexibility, and a Paid Time off Program. BDO also offers a strong family leave policy with up to 9 weeks leave at full pay for new parents. They support new parents as they transition into juggling work and family life and offer a New Parent Network with virtual forums and mentoring. The new policies take into account the ebb and flow of the business cycle, with some professionals working 60‑hour weeks during tax season and 20-hour weeks at slower times.
Deloitte is another trailblazer with a plethora of flexible work arrangements from reduced hours and schedule adjustments to telecommuting. It has made FWA a centerpiece of its HR policies and instituted a Mass Career Customization program that allows employees to align their career paths with their personal and professional priorities. Under the program, employees decide the role, pace, location, schedule and workload that best meet their needs. Sabbaticals are another feature offered by new HR policies and Deloitte’s Personal Pursuits program grants up to five years of leave for employees to pursue personal goals.
Employee satisfaction surveys further strengthen the business case for flexibility. At IBM, almost all (94%) of corporate finance managers surveyed reported the positive effects of flexible work options on the company’s retention of talented professionals. In a 2005 Accenture survey, 80% of employees said that greater balance between work and home impacted their desire to stay with the company. At Deloitte, flexible work arrangements helped retain female employees—a change that increased the number of women in leadership positions from 14 in 1993 to 168 in 2003.
On the down side of FWA, some caution against the so-called ‘Mommy Track’ when companies give mothers time off and reduce their hours but with negative consequences to their career trajectories. Once on the Mommy Track, experts say, it is very hard to get off. Companies, knowingly or unknowingly, may place men on the Fast Track while neglecting to set up pathways to invite women professionals back up the career ladder. Only recently, some companies (Goldman Sachs and Booz Allen Hamilton, to name two) have begun to include options for men and women to “on ramp” after taking time away from their careers. 
Today, men and women, young and old, whether providing child care or elder care, or pursuing personal interests, are all demanding greater flexibility. Studies by the Families and Work Institute and others have shown that both male and female members of Generation Y and Z fully expect to enjoy flexible work arrangements and work:life balance throughout their careers. Older employees too are staying on the job longer but want the same access to reduced hours and/or reduced workloads to lead more balanced lives.
In sum, the workplace needs to become more hospitable to the 21st Century workforce. As Kathleen Christensen, Director of the Workplace, Work Force and Working Families program at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation has pointed out, most labor laws and working policies date back from the 1930s and 40s, when men were the primary bread earners and women the primary caregivers. Working environments were rigidly organized around time and space, with activities occurring at designated hours at designated locations. Now, of course, companies are redrawing their business models as the workforce and technology change and the notion of what constitutes a workplace changes along with it.
The business imperative is there to make workplaces more attuned to a 21st Century workforce. We need work spaces and arrangements that are more hospitable to women and men, younger and older employees, and we need policies that nurture and advance a diverse talent pool, with a critical mass of women advancing through the leadership pipeline.
*Linda Basch, PhD, is President of the National Council for Research on Women, a network of more than 100 research, policy, and advocacy centers dedicated to making the workplace more equitable and inclusive.

This commentary is part of Microsoft's Your Office, Your Terms Forum  –  #Blog #YOYT

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