SHRM: Workplace Flexibility Is 'Business Imperative'

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The Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) continued to push flexible workplace options as a business imperative during a congressional briefing that SHRM and the Congressional Hispanic Leadership Institute Inc. hosted Oct. 12, 2011, on Capitol Hill.

“This is an issue whose time has come. It’s good for workers, it’s good for businesses,” said Sara Manzano-Diaz, director of the Women’s Bureau at the U.S. Department of Labor, during her keynote remarks.

Businesses need to have policies in place that reflect the realities of today's family life and the competitive nature of the global economy, she said.

Although no longer seen as a women’s issue, lack of flexibility in the workplace often leads to women leaving the workforce, she said, because of rigid expectations that do not allow for care-giving responsibilities. This especially impacts science, technology, engineering and math fields where there are few women, she added.

Employers “can’t think of workplace flexibility as a perk or even a benefit. It’s a business imperative,” said Lisa Horn, co-leader for SHRM’s Workplace Flexibility Initiative.

Horn was among panelists who included Lois Backon, senior vice president of the Families and Work Institute (FWI); Shelley MacDermid Wadsworth, professor in the Department of Human Development and Family Studies at Purdue University in Indiana; and Marcy Karin, associate clinical professor of law and director of the Work-Life Policy Unit of the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University.

Horn pointed to a 2010 survey of global C-suite executives, Company of the Future, commissioned by SHRM and the Economist Intelligence Unit. Attracting, retaining and rewarding the best talent are the biggest challenges facing HR over the next 10 years, those executives said.

In a survey conducted in 2010, more than half of the nearly 500 respondents said providing flexibility to juggle life and work was the most effective tactic for meeting those challenges, Horn said.

Flex options often are seen as being available only to office workers, but they can be adapted to other sectors, she said.  Futura Industries, a manufacturer in Clearfield, Utah, offers its 208 employees a variety of shift schedules.

Seeking Control

Workers are looking for some level of control over their schedules, said MacDermid Wadsworth.

“Employers often worry that the floodgates are open” once they offer flex options, she said, “but that doesn’t usually happen.”

Instead, flexibility fosters a feeling of loyalty because workers see the employer as accommodating and supportive, she said. Flex options can be contingent on performance, she added, and even incremental flexibility, such as a slight adjustment to start and end times, “can make an enormous difference” to employees.

She cautioned employers, though, against limiting flex options to certain groups, such as parents of young children, as that can prompt a backlash among other workers. Also, flex options don’t help employees working excessive hours, MacDermid Wadsworth added.

The demographics of the workforce have changed, increasing the need for flexibility at work, Backon said. Fewer young people are in the workforce, while the recession has forced some older workers to postpone retirement and others in their 80s and 90s to return to work. Additionally, there is a huge reversal of the traditional American family of past generations, she pointed out.

“We have seen men move to caring more for their children, doing more household chores,” Backon said. They also are reporting more work/life conflict than women as they try to provide for their families, share in child rearing and participate more in the household.

Generations X and Y are more family-centric than Baby Boomers, and they are looking for employers who provide the flexibility they want, Backon said.

“Not to suggest they aren’t working as hard … or not giving their all. They’re saying ‘no’ to the rigid jobs that are not adapting to the changes that we’ve seen. They’re helping to shape the paradigm of flexibility.”