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Flexibility At Work: Why Companies Hesitate

Posted: February 8, 2011

In theory, flexibility at work is beneficial to both employers and working women. Yet why do companies hesitate to embrace it?

By Sairee Chahal

(Sairee Chahal is Co-Founder, Fleximoms. Fleximoms works towards creating, enhancing and co-creating workflex opportunities for women professionals. It also helps organizations harness flexibility as a value driver. Co-founder, SAITA Consulting Pvt. Ltd, a management consulting firm focussed on SMBs, member of the CII Committee on MSMEs, a visiting faculty at IIFT, New Delhi and mother of a 3-year-old, Sairee is your regular Fleximom.)

Our lives are complicated and our work not getting simpler. Any clued in business leader agrees that Flexibility at work is an imperative – something that needs to stay on the business radar. Businesses and employees realize that money is important but creativity, freedom and innovation are critical to bringing in that money.

US President Obama recently said in an address that workplace flexibility is an issue that impacts the success of our businesses and the well-being of our families.

However, most companies are not geared to adopt flexibility at work. The letting go of traditional structures and command and control formats means undoing over a century of corporate learning.

Reasons why employers hesitate to adopt flexibility at work

Why should I?

Businesses are not geared to look at innovation unless it is a necessity. Companies are not particularly familiar with the business case for Workplace flexibility. Therefore, the incentive to adopt is really low. However, with changing business and life needs, senior managers do foresee the imperative of flexibility at work.

There are enough people to work

In a country like India, the first argument thrown against workplace flexibility is that there are more people than there are jobs. There are the teeming youth millions, so why should companies invest in newer workplace choices and trends? While the teeming millions is a truth, anyone who manages or leads new economy teams will be able to tell you the value of a skilled and empowered workforce.

By enabling people at different life stages to stay on in the workplace, flexible work helps preserve skills, experience and very significant ‘team attention’ into the eco-system. There is enough research to prove that flex jobs help manage attrition, and is a valuable practice for high-value, high-skill, high-complexity sectors.

By enabling people at different life stages to stay on in the workplace, flexible work helps preserve skills, experience and very significant ‘team attention’ into the eco-system.

Who will manage Flex?

One of the biggest challenges companies face is the capability to initiate and manage flexibility at work. The Human Resource function in most organizations is still geared to treat people as a resource and therefore on ‘spending’ the resource as opposed to empowering, preserving, enhancing its value. The DNA of this function is still set in the industrial age. In a converged world, as companies depend more on the ‘discretionary’ skills of their knowledge workers rather than on mechanical/assembly-line work, the need to have project and HR leads understanding and supporting workplace flexibility will grow.

The success of workplace flexibility depends on an organization’s culture. Therefore the real custodians of flexibility are not policy owners or makers but every single employee and team member. Project heads and HR teams have a key role in shaping up the flavour of flexible work and work-life balance.

What is the benefit?

The business case for workplace flexibility has been established and adopted. However, as a trend, it is still climbing its learning curve, especially in India. Let us not forget – new emergent, accepting, exuberant corporate India is about 20 years old. As the learning and benefit of workplace flexibility emerge over a mid-long term horizon, there won’t be a need to talk about its benefits.

How do we do it?

Being able to extract business value out of flexibility at work remains a challenge for most businesses. The ability to adapt and implement best practices in one’s own eco-system in order to achieve the desired business goals is something most business decision makers have not dwelled on.

For example, the Flex needs of a small business are very different from the Flex needs of an outsourcing set up. The customization of flexibility solutions in one’s own context is key to its success and businesses that begin to invest in it will begin to reap the rewards sooner.

Positioning

Flexibility at work has mostly been viewed as a retention and motivation tool, never a core value driver for the bottomline. The ownership of flexibility at work is that of a business owner’s or a CXO, from where it percolates to other key leaders in the organization. Without such ownership by the top management, flexibility at work is often misconstrued as favours or special treatment rather than a policy or a cultural value in business.

The ownership of flexibility at work is that of a business owner’s or a CXO, from where it percolates to other key leaders in the organization. Without such ownership by the top management, flexibility at work is often misconstrued as favours or special treatment…

Control

Flexibility sometimes implies loss of control – over an individual’s actions, discretion and availability. It is also assumed that flexibility is a sign of weak management control.

Making flex work

Many organizations agree with the concept of workplace flexibility but fail to coach teams and establish systems and process to carry the process forward. An investment into building work flexibility means careful understanding of business and organizational objectives. It also means deployment of the appropriate tools and techniques to reach those objectives and adequate amount of cultural support.

There have been steps towards closing the large gap between flexibility at work aspirations and reality, like the recent partnership between Society for Human Resource Management and Family Work Institute.

Clearly, Flexibility is a low cost change agent with maximum impact. It is time to fire up the imagination and create a spark!

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