The following guest blog post comes from Ben Eubanks, Chief Research Officer at Lighthouse Research & Advisory. In this role, he works with HR, talent and learning leaders across the globe to solve their most pressing business challenges with a research-based perspective tempered by practical, hands-on experience.
Employers everywhere are struggling to keep frontline staff because of intense competition. We’ve already provided some ideas around what can be done to create a more supportive work environment, but in the second piece in this series we will more closely examine workplace flexibility and how that can still be offered to workers in frontline roles. Most companies assume that it’s not possible to make that happen.
But it is.
I’ve seen it first-hand. It all started when one of our team leaders, Mac, turned in his letter of resignation.
When it happened, I was stunned. Mac did good work, earned the respect of his team, and was loved by our customers. When I called him, he shared that he wanted to spend more time with his grandkids and more time fishing. After some investigating, we called him with a counteroffer.
“How would you like to work two days a week of your own choosing, keep doing the work you love and supporting your team, but have the other three days a week to spend fishing, doting on your grandchildren, or whatever else you prefer?”
It was Mac’s turn to be stunned. See, we worked on a government site, which meant the rules we had to abide by were very specific, and traditional job flexibility options were virtually nonexistent. Our team provided technical engineering services for a customer manufacturing operation, so we had to be physically present wherever and whenever those customers required. In spite of those apparent limitations, I knew that we could make this work, and I went to Mac’s boss (the CEO) to get it approved.
Over the next 18 months, we not only got the very best effort, ideas, and energy that Mac had to offer in his job, but we also took advantage of the opportunity to help him mentor and grow one of our staff members to take his place once he was fully ready for retirement.
I love telling this story because it is a very tangible reminder that workplace flexibility means different things to different people. For instance, it can mean having autonomy and control; being able to have a say so in how things get done. Many opportunities exist to bring flexibility into frontline and other inflexible jobs. It all starts with learning what flexibility means to the individual. Once we’ve done that, we can often find a solution that meets the needs of that person, their boss, and the employer at the same time.
Defining Your Culture of Flexibility with a Flexibility Audit
I talked with a CEO recently that told me she wanted a “culture of flexibility” at her company. It’s a common discussion, but there’s a problem with that statement. It assumes that there’s not already some sort of culture in place. In fact, based on her comments in our discussion, there’s actually already a culture of flexibility at that company, but the culture isn’t a positive one at this time.
To put it a different way, every company already has a culture of flexibility. It may be that the culture is flexible, adaptable, and supportive of each individual’s needs. It may be that it’s inflexible, limited, and overly controlling. Both of those are opposite ends of the spectrum when it comes to flexibility.
One way to approach this practically is through a flexibility audit. It involves gathering feedback from workers and their leaders and then comparing the results to really get a clear picture of your starting point.
- The workforce question is a simple one: on a scale of one to 10, how much flexibility do you have in your work?
- Managers get a slightly modified version: on a scale of one to 10, how much flexibility do your staff have in their work?
Then we compare the results. What we typically see is that workers rate this at a 2-5 on the scale, but managers often rate their team’s flexibility at a 6-8. Obviously both of those can’t be true, so it creates an opportunity to talk about what flexibility really looks like, how to enable it across a diverse and dynamic workforce, and what it takes to be successful.
This is a tangible exercise to help illuminate just how flexible work really is for your people, and the majority of the time there will be some sort of gap between how managers and their staff respond to the questions. At that point it’s important to look at ways to embed flexibility through a variety of mechanisms, as we have outlined below.
Practical Ideas for Flexibility at Work
When the options exist to offer remote or hybrid work to the workforce, those are helpful choices to support personal choices and work/life balance. However, many jobs, industries, and companies do not have the option to offer remote work to their people. In those cases, it’s important to look at other, practical ideas for embedding flexibility into how work gets done.
The following examples provide some unique opportunities to support your people with flexibility:
1) Control and Autonomy: Give employees more control over how their work gets done.
One example of this comes from an organization with frontline workers who handled regular customer service challenges. Many times those discussions stalled out because of a lack of authority to actually solve the problem, so the company granted these individuals with the power and authority to handle issues under a certain dollar amount (for example, $200 or less). This single change immediately boosted customer satisfaction scores AND employee engagement scores, because it put trust and accountability into the hands of the workforce.
2) Time off and Scheduling: Offer flexible benefits that support employee family responsibilities.
Seven in 10 employers, according to new SHRM data, would not allow employees to bring children with them if they had an emergency. However, more and more companies are helping their workers balance work/family responsibilities by offering flexible benefits – for example, benefits that enable employees to access child care when their regular care is unavailable.
3) Progress and Mobility: One of the top practices of companies with better revenue, employee retention, and employee engagement is weaving growth and development into the performance/talent management process.
Be clear on the skills you're looking for. Six out of 10 employees say they do not get any guidance from their leaders on what skills are most important to develop for long-term career success, according to one Lighthouse Research & Advisory study. By helping workers see opportunities for career growth, we can help create more sticky relationships with our people.
4) Communication and Clarity: Share openly with your people if you want their support and engagement.
Chris Van Gorder, CEO of Scripps Health, talks in his book about how he shares daily emails examining market changes with 15,000-plus people across the organization. He wants all his staff to be up to date on the most current news and information so they can be informed enough to perform at their very best. It would be easy to adapt this to your workplace by ensuring that information doesn’t stagnate in one place but is spread across the organization for the benefit of all.
While this isn’t an exhaustive list, it’s a great starting point for business and talent leaders that want to create a more flexible, employee-focused culture. The future of work may be agile and dynamic, but if we can’t support more flexible work practices within our organizations, then we’ll struggle to keep our very best talent.