Creating Flexible Workplaces

Dr. Purushothaman
October 16, 2013

Organizations fortunate enough to be considered employers of choice know that one of the reasons they can attract and retain skilled staff is that they have established a workplace culture that supports flexible work practices.

Current skills shortages, combined with globalization, technological advances, an ageing workforce, new workplace values of Gen X and Y's and diversity in the workplace has "upped the stakes" for employers to stop talking about it and to actually make flexibility at work a reality.

There are real bottom-line incentives to do so including increased productivity, better customer service, enhanced legal compliance, improved morale, reduced absenteeism, greater overall effectiveness, and an ability to adapt readily to market changes. There's also that very profitable, but less concise notion of "discretionary effort" - where workers go that extra mile because they believe that employers are doing the right thing by them.

So what flexible practices do employees want?

The definition of flexible work practices has been expanded in recent times to include a range of "well-being" initiatives.

I was privileged to be part of the judging team for the HR Awards in the Health and Wellbeing category with Award finalists coming from a range of industry sectors. While these workplaces offered most of the more common flexible work arrangements, some innovative options were:

Sensis introduced a leave matrix reference tool and an option to purchase up to two weeks leave by reducing annual salary;

HBA Health Insurance introduced 8 week's paid parental leave and an additional six months of parental leave beyond the first 12 months;

Main Roads WA's provided an innovation day and phased retirement;

Greenslopes Private Hospital provided cultural leave and one week of extra leave for night staff;

Citibank provided volunteer leave, a parental leave toolkit and a step by step process to develop a flexible work plan.

The finalists' strategies also focused on physical health and wellbeing including:

Citibank's provision of sleep apnea screening;onsite gym with fitness facilities, trainers and classes;
pregnancy wellbeing policies;the option of a flu vaccine or aromatherapy alternative;dining and leisure benefits;
employee access to a dedicated intranet portal showing them how to submit a flexible work arrangement proposal;
and a four day onsite biennial health and wellbeing event;

HBA Health Insurance has a monthly online wellness magazine; subsidised health insurance for employees and their families; and a comprehensive wellbeing awareness program;

Sensis provides site specific health and wellbeing committees organizing regular activities; a regional people commitment fund and a care safety program which has been highly effective in changing the safety culture;

Main Roads WA has an active health monitoring program; accessible exercise programs; exercise squads; and a waist watch challenge which resulted in a decrease of 161.22cm of waist girth!

The ultimate winner however was Greenslopes Private Hospital (GPH).

GPH's success came from a combination of focused commitment, and well-funded and innovative programs.

To maintain the focus, GPH employs a Wellness Coordinator who, assisted by a team of wellness professionals, is responsible for the success of their staff wellness program.

Some of their "WorkLife@GPH" strategies include:

an on-site child care centre,

a state-of-the-art Wellness Centre,

an on-site gymnasium,

sponsored family oriented events,

education grants,

reward programs including all permanent staff receiving an Entertainment Book,

a Strategic Plan that includes workload management strategies,

discounts on travel, banking, health insurance and,
an on-site pharmacy.

The more traditional flexible work practices are also impressive with rostered days off, part-time work, job-sharing, flexible shifts, working from home, paid maternity and carers' leave, cultural leave, an additional one week's leave for permanent night staff, and lactation breaks.

So what's in it for GPH? Benefits to the organization included:

a 68% reduction in workers' compensation costs since 2003;

1 in 5 staff nominated the Wellness Program as a major factor for choosing GPH as an employer based on their Recruitment Indicator Evaluation;

workplace stress claims were well below industry norms;

more than 5% reduction in staff turnover in a two year period;

24.8% lower rate of absenteeism among Club Wellness members.

Unfortunately all too many workplaces are still saying "Well that's OK in the ideal world but not in reality, not for us" or "We've tried it and it didn't work". This is largely because organisations would prefer to stay as they are than face the challenges that confront them. So, they don't reap the benefits of this new way of working. They'll keep trying to fit "square pegs into round holes" by fitting workers' around the jobs rather than making the jobs fit the best people for the work involved.

So how do we overcome the challenges of implementing these practices?

Every workplace culture is unique, has different barriers and needs different solutions to the challenges that present. The issues can be attitudinal, can be based on misperceptions, systems problems, workloads, fear of the effect on career, leadership and managerial blocks. The list goes on.

To address the barriers, Flexibility At Work developed a systematic culture change approach. This involves developing the business case; analysing organization specific issues; developing strategies to overcome the challenges; engaging senior management; addressing management issues; targeted, consistent and regular communication; engaging employees; and evaluating the program.

Sounds straight forward, but the problem is that organizations only change if their people change and it has to start from the top. If leaders and managers are working excessive hours, not taking annual leave and not spending time in their outside roles, attitudinal and behavior change is extremely difficult to achieve. No amount of policy making, values statements and systems implementation will change that organisation to one that enables work/life balance.

New and innovative approaches are required. The most effective approach for us is the use of the Play of Life coaching method in our flexible workplace workshops and executive coaching.

Created by Dr.Carlos Raimundo, the Play of Life coaching tool and method has a sound psychological and neuro-physiological basis. The tool enables lateral thinking, creative solutions and effective behavior change in relatively short periods of time at both the organizational and individual level.

Usually organizations only deal with issues at the "tip of the iceberg". The real barriers to change happen below the surface where behaviors, attitudes, beliefs and mental models do not reflect stated values and policy pronouncements. At the organizational level the Play of Life enables deeper insights into the challenges facing the workplace so that effective strategies can be developed.

This method also cuts across language and cultural barriers and is visual and three-dimensional. This allows a diverse workforce to be engaged in the culture change process more readily.

Substantial behavior changes come from shifts of insight or perception of the deeper issues. The Play of Life creates pressure for discovery, giving back some measure of control to the individual in a practical, non-judgmental way. It allows us to look at the situation from the outside, objectively and in a safe environment. It encourages us, and gives us time and space to do some lateral thinking and find solutions that we might not have seen otherwise.

This approach enables change because it reframes and provides a deeper analysis of the issues; gives a three-dimensional picture of where the organization wants to be (the vision); stimulates creativity and motivation to act; and helps to find achievable steps to achieve the change.

If leaders provide the resources and the will, this is the innovation that can help to facilitate the change to a sustainable flexible workplace.

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