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Workplace Flexibility In U.S. Could Be Key To International Competition

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Some say work-flex is reserved for the elite, white collar-professionals. And frequently women who really need it are often not able to get it. Many of us are all too familiar with the daily work grind, from the blood-pressure raising commutes to the long, groggy hours spent staring at a computer screen. But Lisa Horn with the Society of Human Resource Management says it’s time for all of that to change.

Encouraging a more creative and flexible work environment

"It's really a 21st century workforce," she says. "In a 19th century workplace, it's very antiquated and you could argue that could certainly hinder our competiveness."

Horn says our society suffers from what some refer to as a "poverty of imagination" in the workplace. We're technologically advanced and striving for diversity, yet our views on how we conduct our actual work could ultimately be what’s holding us back.

Many workplaces do have work flex policies. Telecommuting from home is not a new concept, but she says research shows employees don't always take advantage.

Do supervisors encourage them to use the flexibility? Or does the employee have some type of fear of utilizing it? Fear of affecting career advancement or fear of retribution for using it? On the other hand do employees even know they have these types of policies on the books? They may not.

Moving Work Forward aims to move work out of the office

Horn is part of a new initiative called Moving Work Forward, a movement based in Washington, D.C. that encourages employers across the country to consider work-flex policies – policies that allow employees to work at home, enjoy more adaptable schedules and spend more time with their families.

But there is still resistance. She says much of that is due to fear and a common assumption.

There's been some misperception of telecommuters, that when the cat's way the mice will play. That was one of the major fears of Ryan LLC, a large Dallas-based tax firm with an office in D.C. Ryan is now an integral part of the Moving Work Forward Initiative after switching to work-flex just over two years ago.

Communications director Delta Emerson says the company studied the concept in the past, but its culture at the time could not have been more different.

"We had a lot of policies in place, like people had to work a certain amount of time each week," says Emerson. "If they didn’t work a certain amount of time, they had to use PTO, so it was very, very rigid."

After one woman left the company because she said she could not raise a family, company managers determined they were losing too much top talent due to their inflexibility.

That's when they rolled out their MyRyan program. The company would no longer require employees to work specific hours. Employees were granted total flexibility as long as they achieved certain goals. But company leaders were initially fearful.

"They were just so afraid that the first day after they rolled it out, no one would be there," says Steve Thompson, manager at Ryan’s D.C. office. "We laugh about that now. If they know where they’re gonna be, they’re gonna do it. Since it was rolled out, Ryan has cut its turnover rate from 18 percent to 6 percent. And the company's productivity has increased drastically, having one of its best years in 2009, despite the recession."

Sitting at a Starbucks on 13th Street, Thompson says the flexibility is crucial and extremely appealing to a younger generation of workers.

"We'll always have core office hours," he says. "Someone has to answer the phone, but I think we're starting to realize that not everybody’s brain is built in the same way and what works for one person may not work for the next."

To gauge employee progress, Ryan uses a mechanism called "the dashboard." Employees can check their status on-line and instantly know if they’re meeting the benchmark of what's expected of them.

Emerson says it's taken years to develop the dashboard and it’s still being refined. It tracks a variety of data determining productivity, which then feeds into an employee profile.

Workplace flexibility gaining more ground and adds an edge to global competition

Overall, businesses do face challenges in employing this type of technology. It's costly and we’re still in the pioneer phase of determining what works best.

Many companies are taking the wait-and-see approach. They want to see what works for other companies before they take the plunge and change their own culture. Thompson says it does take some getting used to, but it's clearly working.

"It encourages employees to work smarter, not harder. If you’re able to get your tasks done and do them with excellence, why not enjoy the reward of taking off early on a Friday to head to the beach."

Businesses that have good work-flex plans are already seeing sharp increases in productivity, an average of 19 percent according to the society of human resource management.

Horn says this could be one crucial way to compete globally into the next century, against countries such as India and China.

"It's gonna have to get done differently," he says. "And that’s what drives this need for flexibility."

A need that Horn says many now regard as the next great business imperative.

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