11 steps help make flexible work a success

President Obama has been weighing in regularly on the value of flexible work arrangements, saying workplace flex “isn’t just a woman’s issue.” Under his watch, the U.S. Department of Labor’s Women’s Bureau has started what it calls “a national dialogue on workplace flexibility,” and the agency is pushing employers to focus more on the work/life benefits of flex.

Indeed, surveys consistently show that employees aren’t the only ones who benefit from workplace flex. It helps their employers, too.

For employees, flexibility means the ability to set their own work schedules, work from home occasionally, compress their workweeks so they can take more days off or work part time to accommodate a change in their personal lives temporarily or permanently.

For employers, flexibility can mean higher retention, better employee morale and even a healthier workforce that suffers from less stress.

Keys to flex success

As the feds focus on flex, consider whether your organization is doing all it can to make it work for the business and the employees.

Here are 11 steps you can take to make flex programs more successful—making work/life balance easier for your employees and improving your overall business operations:

1. Pile the flex on employees who have high-pressure jobs. A recent study by Bain & Co. found that a lack of flexibility for women in high-stress jobs is driving great employees away from their companies. The study’s authors found that offering flexible work arrangements to women in high-pressure jobs can improve retention by up to 40%.

2. Offer flex as an antidote to stress. Four recent academic studies have confirmed that the ability to self-schedule work hours can have a positive effect on blood pressure, sleep and mental health, which can lead to better heart health—and healthier employees.

3. Nudge your organization’s culture into one that accepts flex. The Bain & Co. study also revealed that flex isn’t “sufficiently used” by employees in many organizations that offer it, partly because they fear they’ll lose the respect of managers and peers.

4. Encourage leaders to use flex benefits themselves—and let employees know it. If the boss feels free to delay the start of her work day until after her kids board the school bus, employees will be more likely to take advantage of the same perk.

5. Tailor flex programs so they solve employees’ work/life balance dilemmas. If your workforce is loaded with young parents, flexible hours might be important. On the other hand, older workers might appreciate sabbaticals and leaves of absence as they become grandparents or struggle to care for their own aging parents.

6. Match new users of flex with mentors who have successfully used the same benefit.

7. Focus on seamless operations. Train managers to adapt their communication and management styles to provide clear direction (and responsible supervision) for employees who work schedules different from the boss’s.

8. Formalize flex. Invite employees to suggest flexible working arrangements to their managers. Then give managers the prerogative to accept or reject requests. Managers should consider how well the employee is suited to telework, part-time work or flextime, for instance. Does the job lend itself to the flexible work arrangements? It’s possible for flex to work informally, but it often fails when employees consider only their own scheduling needs and not the company’s needs or the nature of the work.

9. Ask employees for input as you create your flex program. They’re usually the ones who know best how—or whether—their units will be able to function when some team members choose different schedules.

10. Retool manager-employee communication. Don’t rely on e-mail alone to communicate with teleworkers. Managers should regularly touch base with remote staff by phone and during occasional in-person meetings. On-site employees should do the same. Keep out-of-sight employees in the social and business loop by including them in all staff meetings, at least via teleconference.

11. Know the law. Keep up with the latest lawsuits involving flex issues like overtime pay for part-time workers and home-office safety for teleworkers.

Match flex by employee type for maximum impact

Authors of a Bain & Co. survey of flexible work arrangements broke employees into four groups—each with different needs for flex:

  • Pause-button pushers: Older employees who are interested in a challenging career but want to take breaks to recharge their batteries and tend to family or other personal business. Flex fit: leaves of absence.
  • Alternate path enthusiasts: Mostly Generation Y employees who might not be thinking long-term about their careers or earning promotions. They like predictability, they don’t want to be on-call and they’re not into traveling for work. Flex fit: part-time jobs.
  • Support seekers: Workers who thrive on visible and vocal support from managers and don’t buy into flex. Flex fit: traditional schedules.
  • Casual fans: Career- and promotion-oriented employees who are happy to travel for work and don’t value predictability. Flex fit: flexible working hours.

Flex benefits defined

Most organizations that offer flexible work arrangements allow one or more of these options:

  • Flextime: Employees may choose their own starting and ending times from several preset schedules. Everyone usually works during a “core” time in the middle of the day. Some organizations allow workers to vary their start times—within a several-hour window—while others require them to show up at the same time each day once they choose an hour.
  • Compressed workweek: Employees might work four, 10-hour days a week instead of a spreading their 40 hours over five days. Or they might stay an hour later every day in exchange for an extra day off every other week.
  • Telecommuting: Employees work from home or from a remote location either full time, one or two days a week or just occasionally.
  • Part-time work: Employees work fewer hours for reduced pay and benefits.
  • Job sharing: Two employees share one job and split the work, responsibilities and pay.