What lies beneath flexi work options
FWAs enable employees to customise their schedule, place and pace of work, which can become a tool for talent management and employee engagement
Employees opting for FWAs are not less ambitious or less smart; they simply prefer flexibility & need processes to support their career growth
It was a damp evening in Singapore when I decided to visit the exhibition featuring the artifacts and stories from the sunken vessel - Titanic. The exhibition painstakingly reproduced the commissioning of the ship, the excitement surrounding its launch and the unfolding of the disaster that fateful night. I could not help but think of how organizations embarking on the path of better work-life fit initiatives are also on a maiden voyage that carries with it the potential to charter new territories or end up in a disaster. The design, launch and voyage of the Titanic contained within it, many valuable lessons for those willing to learn.
Flexible work arrangements (FWAs) enable employees to customize the schedule, amount, place and pace of their work. The range of options include everything from job sharing to a reduced work day. These programs are being seen as a key tool for employee engagement and talent management, especially for women returning to work or the Gen Y. Research by Lee Hecht Harrison shows that 39 percent of employees are willing to take upto a 10% pay cut, if they had more flexibility at work. However, the adoption of such initiatives require changes that go beyond simple policy incorporation. It represents a change management initiative that requires careful thought to enable maximum benefit as well as re-engineering of job design and its surrounding processes.
Many months in the making, Titanic was seen as a miracle of modern engineering. The ‘unsinkable’ ship was supposed to revitalize White Line’s business model and replace an ageing fleet. However, there were many things about Titanic that were amiss. Here is how the Titanic provides us with some lessons for the launch and execution of projects as important as FWAs.
Capabilities and resources make the journey
Did you know that most of the crew on the ship were not seamen but engineers, stokers, stewards and galley staff, who were not equipped to handle sea emergencies? Most did not know how to launch or row lifeboats. This lack of skills had tremendous implications, when the Titanic struck the iceberg. Lack of preparedness was evident in other key areas. The men posted on the lookout for icebergs that night, did not have binoculars, a basic tool that may have helped to spot the dangers up ahead.
Many organizations are keen to show themselves as flex-friendly and are quick to adopt policies around the same. However, most do not pay adequate attention to the surrounding resources and capabilities around these initiatives. For instance, organizations such as Fleximoms in India, may train women to return back to the workplace, but is the workplace ready for their return? Do managers have the necessary training to guide and manage those in flex-work roles? Does the surrounding team understand the effort and coordination it takes for the employee in the flex-role to achieve work goals? To use the binocular analogy, do the managers have the ability to spot dangers, that lie ahead in managing a team with flex and no flex-roles? It is not enough to check the box on flex-work initiatives; there has to be a long-term strategy backed with short-term goals and adequate training provided to all concerned – employees, managers and team members interfacing with those in flex-roles. There is also a need for putting in supporting HRIS systems, that can help create and administer flex arrangements, state policy and map its utilization to measure the performance of FWAs.
Update the supporting processes to facilitate the new job design
According to a research by BBC History: "Her stern, with its high graceful counter and long thin rudder, was an exact copy of an 18th-century sailing ship ...a perfect example of the lack of technical development. Compared with the rudder design of the Cunarder shipping line, Titanic's was a fraction of the size. No account was made for advances in scale and little thought was given to how a ship, 852 feet [sic] in length, might turn in an emergency or avoid collision with an iceberg. This was Titanic's Achilles heel.”
Many organizations embarking on flex-work initiatives, assume that the existing HR processes and systems are adequate for handling the new roles. After all, the existing processes may have served them well for many years. However, flex-work and those wanting to take them up, bring with themselves new demands that require some process re-engineering. By understanding the key dimension of a role being considered for FWAs, HR can create supporting processes that allow the potential of the role to be fully realized. Let us, for instance, consider performance appraisal as a process and its interaction with FWAs. Normally, for most roles, hours logged in to do work, facetime, and involvement in office politics, are all realities that play into performance appraisal decisions. However, does the individual on flex-roles lose out because he/she may not be in office on certain days or cannot be ‘seen’ working by other people? It is important to setup new forms of understanding and measuring performance for those using FWAs. This will ensure that those in FWAs do not lose out on career progression opportunities.
One way to do this is to unbundle the job/role along its core dimensions. There is a need to ask questions, such as - what are the interdependencies of the role and the individual performing it; the influence and decision-making span of those in the roles; what are the tangible and intangible indicators of performance; and what level of performance is considered as acceptable or exceptional. Unbundling roles allow us to map the what, how and why of performance appraisal of flex-roles. FWAs are not implemented in a vacuum and it is important to re-examine all HR processes that come in contact with these new roles. People in FWAs are not less smart or less ambitious; they simply prefer flexibility to a 9-5 regimen. As such, they need better processes to support their career growth.
Don’t let aesthetic concerns and business pressures lead to under-utilization
Since 4 years of investment was tied up in the Titanic, the management was keen to launch the ship. Consequently, many processes were bypassed or met inadequately to make sure of an on-time launch. For instance, despite the fact that the ship was using emerging technologies that had not been adequately understood by the crew or the captain, the Titanic did not undergo adequate sea trials. Additionally, the number of rescue boats on the ship was reduced so that the deck would not look cluttered and passengers would get sweeping views of the horizon. The life boats were only enough for roughly 1100 people on a ship that carried over 3500. When disaster struck and life boats were lowered, many boats were not even half filled and two were launched upside down, due to lack of adequate preparedness for emergencies.
Many organizations feel the pressure to adopt FWA in a hurry to keep up with market trends. Most such arrangements focus on women as the key beneficiaries of the system. This limited view of FWAs and the hurry to launch, does not allow them to reap the full benefits of FWA. A very large number of people believe that flexibility is a women’s issue and affects only those women who get married or who have children. Nothing could be further from the truth. As the number of dual career couples goes up, men can no longer rely on the safety net of a ‘woman’ at home to take care of the household. This in turn puts pressure on men, who start to feel the stress of trying to keep some balance between home and work. Additionally, many younger employees are being called upon to take care of ageing parents or grandparents and being prematurely thrust into care-giving roles. This group is not on the radar of many organizations. Moreover, given the ageing demographics, there are many older workers in the workforce, who come with their own requirements for flex-work. Consequently, there is a much larger pool of workers, who are seeking flexibility at work in return for their engagement and commitment.
One of the most saddening stories on the exhibition, was how the warning of the impending icebergs was handled on the Titanic. A final warning message was received at 22:30 from the Californian, which had stopped for the night in an ice field some miles away, but Phillips (the wireless operator busy transmitting messages for passengers) cut it off and signaled back: "Shut up! Shut up! I’m working Cape Race". One can only hope that those pioneering the FWAs are not too busy to ignore the suggestions and advices that the ill-fated ship had for us. Like it has been said, those who ignore the lessons of history do so at their own peril. FWAs represent the future of work for many employees and deserve careful thought and attention by HR professionals.
Dr. Tanvi Gautam is the Managing Partner of Global People Tree, an international HR consulting and training firm (www.globalpeopletree.com). She can be reached at email@example.com