When it comes to finding, hiring and retaining people today, flexibility seems to be a key asset — sometimes even more important than money. It’s true on both ends of the age spectrum:

  • Many healthy and vigorous seniors nearing retirement age are looking for reduced-time, seasonal and otherwise flexible work schedules so that they have more time for families, travel and other interests they have deferred during their working years.
  • Younger people just entering the workforce are looking for flexible schedules so that they can balance work obligations with other interests and relationships, typically scattered all over the country and frequently all over the globe.

There’s no law that says employers have to be flexible. But it’s clear that flexibility is a key asset, and employers who are willing to be flexible will have much less difficulty hiring and keeping top performers.

At a seminar a supervisor once asked me how to deal with employees who are chronically late to work. I suggested some things to change employee behavior. But I also suggested that perhaps a change in the work culture was appropriate.

“I know of an operation similar to yours with eight people on the team, and only one of them can ever be late,” I said. She looked confused, so I continued. “The only person who can be late is the receptionist, or if she’s gone, the person she engages to cover for her. No one else has job tasks that require them to be at their desks at a particular time in the morning, so how can they be late? Of course, they are expected to produce, and those expectations are very clear. But it’s up to them to set their schedules to meet those expectations — so they can’t be late unless they’ve made a commitment to someone else that involves a particular time.”

Years ago, long before “flex-time” was ever mentioned, I hired a supervisor who wasn’t a “morning person.” If we hadn’t been flexible, one of our very best hires ever would have gone down as a “failure.” But as it turned out, we noticed that between 10 a.m. and 10 p.m. she was incredible — and she was happy to stay that late on her own, without any prodding from anyone else.

At the end of her day she routinely has completed the work of two or three people, and showed very good judgment in everything she accomplished. So we encouraged her to keep her own hours as much as her interaction with other people permitted. And we good-naturedly nicknamed her our “California Girl” because she would have always been “on time” if we had just been in the Pacific time zone (rather than in the Central time zone).

The key to being both effective and flexible is to have clear expectations regarding performance for every person in every job. It’s true that some jobs, like assembly line work, require everyone on the line to work the same hours. Those who are responsible for opening and closing offices also have to observe strict routines. But most jobs aren’t inherently locked into specific time requirements, no matter what our workplace practices have been.

In fact, with many jobs greater flexibility may permit greater productivity. For example, we once had a salesman who was a “morning person” and who worked a lot of accounts on the East Coast. He found that coming into our Midwest office an hour before it opened gave him a great head start on closing sales out East. And typically leaving the office at 4 p.m. instead of 5 p.m. helped him deal better with his family’s child care issues. Since he consistently set sales records, we encouraged his flex-time arrangement.

Our theory is that rigid time requirements exist across the board in most workplaces primarily because “that’s the way it’s always been done” and because it’s easier for supervisors to monitor everyone’s work by looking at the clock instead of examining their productivity.

A more flexible approach can improve productivity, make commutes shorter and less expensive by avoiding rush hour traffic, and make child care issues more manageable — all of which should make it possible to hire and retain better people in the future.

Some approaches — like 4-day work weeks with longer hours per day — can be implemented office-wide (ideally as an option rather than a requirement). Other approaches, like flexible hours to avoid peak traffic times, can be negotiated individually as part of the hiring or review process, or as needs arise. The trick is to be — and to be perceived as — fair. Start with accurate job descriptions and specific job expectations and then operate transparently so people know what is expected of each other in light of their different work responsibilities.

Be sensitive to complaints about “playing favorites,” and get guidance from good HR professionals well-versed in compliance issues to avoid discrimination problems. But don’t be cowed into thinking everyone has to have identical job requirements that are not related to their particular job responsibilities.


Copyright © 2008 Yeshua Catholic International Leadership Institute, 208 E. North St., Durand, IL 61024. Any part of this newsletter may be reproduced so long as there is full attribution, our web site is listed, and any electronic reproduction includes a link to our site:

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