Only Manager Accountability Can Close the Workplace Flexibility Gap

Last week’s New York Times article about workplace flexibility in the accounting industry is just the latest evidence that the work flex train is speeding forward. And employers realize if they want to retain top talent, they had better get on board. As Lance Haun pointed out here at TLNT:

One of the issues that has driven the conversation about flex time forward is the hyper-competitive world of these large accounting firms. As with the various historical run-ups in benefits like stock options, bonus compensation, and beyond expectation perks, it started with several companies offering more flex time followed by more of the same…

Retention continues to be the buzzword in a very young 2011, with concerns about voluntary turnover becoming an epidemic, so it may not be a question of “if” these flex time pressures will come to your industry, but “when.”

Lance also wisely notes that in order to make workplace flexibility work, it is essential that all employees share in its advantages and sacrifices. Which brings up a point I believe has been greatly overlooked in the whole workplace flexibility conversation: companies cannot say they truly offer flexible options to all employees unless they hold managers accountable for how well each of them implements flex programs.

A flexibility gap?

Whenever there is a story like this in the papers, most people read it and say, “that sounds great — but how come I don’t have it?”

The thoughtful and well-researched Times article by Steven Greenhouse cites many real-world examples of accounting firms that offer flex programs. Yet many of the comments on Times Web site read like this:

This has got to be an April Fools joke. There is no flexibility at big 4 accounting firms. They advertise flexibility, they don’t practice it…. When I worked at a big 4 accounting firm, you’d get dirty looks if you were to dare leave the office before 6pm. That is not flexibility

I can tell you, it’s not really like this. Many audit teams have mandatory 60+ hour weeks plus weekends. And if you’re productive and get your work done quickly, they will reward you with someone else’s work.”

I know they talk the talk but I agree with a couple of other posters here, it’s just that, talk, at least for the vast majority of employees. I worked at a Big Four for 7.5 years (until 2005, still pretty recent) and it was all about face time and having your posterior in the chair. They certainly like to make examples of some people who get those flex benefits, etc. without repercussions, but the reality for the rank and file is quite different.”

There is apparently a big flexibility gap in this industry, with a lot of people saying “hey, why not me? Where’s my flex?”

Holding managers accountable is the key

But the gap is not limited to the accounting industry. Recent research shows that while 80 percent of workers want flexibility, only about a third have it. So if employees want flexibility and employers know that it works, then where is this flexibility gap and resulting unevenness coming from?

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In large part it is coming from the fact that firms are not putting their money where their mouth is. We know that a major barrier to implementing flexibility stems from the behaviors of middle managers or supervisors who may not be aware of flexibility policies, or may feel that they are stretched thin and cannot see how to provide flexibility without it being a zero sum game.

Educating and training supervisors on how to implement flexibility is important. But if corporate efforts with diversity are any guide, training will go only so far. What most effectively brings about change is accountability: when managers and supervisors are held accountable for results. If managers are held accountable during their annual reviews for how well and how fairly they implement flexibility to achieve business ends, we will then see unevenness dissipating and the flexibility gap closing.

Companies that want to say they are truly walking the walk on workplace flexibility (and reap the business benefits) can’t just offer flexibility to some workers — they need to set up a system of accountability so that everyone is able to find some flexibility.

Kathleen Christensen is a member of the board of directors at OpenWork, a new nonprofit inspiring companies to continuously improve how, when, and where work is done for the mutual benefit of employees and employers. Kathleen directs the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation’s Working Longer program. Previously, Dr. Christensen established and led Sloan’s 17-year pioneering program on working families, including spearheading the first national workplace flexibility campaign. Dr. Christensen planned and participated in the 2014 White House Summit on Working Families and the 2010 White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility. In 2010, Dr. Christensen was named by Working Mother magazine as one of the “Seven Wonders of the Work-Life Field.” In 2004, Families and Work Institute honored her with the inaugural Work-Life Legacy Award as a founder of the work-life field.

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