Think Flex Time Isn’t Possible At Your Company? Think Again

Flex time fans have another industry to use as an example of proof that the concept can work.

The New York Times takes a look at Ernst & Young’s flex time program that’s active year round, even during the busy months of the first quarter for the accounting firm:

In years past, those grueling weeks often fueled nasty marital spats about missed dinners and children’s tantrums over forgotten basketball games.

Not any more. At Ernst & Young, as at the nation’s other major accounting firms, workplace flexibility has been built into the culture — even during crunch time.

Every Monday morning, the 15 people on Mr. Leeds’s team meet and lay out the personal commitments that might interfere with work — basketball games, teacher conferences, Pilates classes, weddings. They arrange to cover for each other, helping make the busy season tolerable for everyone.”

And if they can do it, there is a good chance you can too.

Competitive pressures at play

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.

As you look around the industry landscape now, it is like watching two boxers still standing at the end of the fight with their arms up declaring themselves the winner. It is up to you to judge, but they all seem to sell fairly similar flex time programs.

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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.” Will your company be ready to address those pressures when they come?  That is another question entirely.

Going from impossible to possible

Of course, a decade ago this sort of thing would be seen as impossible. Nobody at an accounting firm was going to get to see the Super Bowl or the BCS Championship. This time of year it was all hands on deck. And certainly, taking off loads of personal time for a newborn or senior care was out of the question if you wanted to make partner.

Yet, these cultures have gradually evolved over the past decade (and they’ll continue to do so). And if you’re in a position where you think it isn’t possible, take a look at what you can do.

  1. Identifying employees – For the purposes of flex time, there are really two types of employees: ones who can do most of their work remotely and ones who can’t. For example, I can do most of my job remotely but my wife (who works for a winery) cannot. She is working with a physical product while I am working with something less tangible.
  2. Create programs for both groups – While many flex time proponents (and many examples) are from folks who can do most of their job remotely, it is a simple fact that there are millions in our country who simply can’t telecommute or make up time easily outside of normal hours. Being able to schedule flexibly is a major key to getting the best results.
  3. Set expectations – While this isn’t full on ROWE (and I do have my doubts about full on ROWE), a lesson can be learned from the concept about setting real, concrete expectations for all employees (including flex time folks). Instead of knowing whether someone is doing well because they work late, you know it because they are meeting their objectives.
  4. Shared flexibility – When it comes to positions where face time is absolutely essential, all of the employees have to be on the same page. To get buy-in from all, everyone has to share in the advantages and the sacrifice that flex time will have on a hours-essential position. It can also help employees realize the predicament that managers often face with work that needs to be done in line with everyone’s needs and wants.

I think there is potential for every company to go flexible (whether they’re forced into it or they actually want it). The only question left in my mind is which camp are they in and how quickly can they adjust.

Lance Haun is the practice director of strategy and insights for The Starr Conspiracy, where he focuses on researching and writing about work technology. He is also a former editor for ERE Media, broadly covering the world of human resources, recruiting, and sourcing. 
 
He has been featured as a work expert in publications like the Harvard Business Review, The Wall Street Journal, Fortune, MSNBC, Fast Company, and other HR and business websites.
 
He's based in his Vancouver, Wash., home office with his wife and adorable daughter. You can reach him by email or find him off-topic on Twitter.

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