Category Archives: workplace flexibility

What Workers Want and How to Supply It

As most of you embark on your first official work day of 2015, and Bruce-Tulgan-New-Photo-June-2014-200x300just in case a New Year’s resolution was to treat your employees even better this year than last, I thought I’d start you off with some suggestions from workplace and demographic expert Bruce Tulgan.

As I noted in this earlier (summertime) blog post about his recent book, The 27 Challenges Managers Face, Tulgan, CEO and founder of New Haven, Conn.-based management consultancy RainmakerThinking Inc., is pretty authoritative when it comes to employer-employee relationships.

In this more recent post, What Employees Want and How to Give It to Them, Tulgan once again relies on his and Rainmaker’s more than 20 years of research into workplaces and manager-employee relationships to give you these “key elements of every job that employees typically care about,” he says.

As he puts it in the post:

“You want to be generous and flexible with your employees. Why wouldn’t you? Everybody is working harder. Everybody is under more pressure. Everybody needs more than what they are getting.

If you are the boss, one of the most important parts of your job is taking care of your people. Remember, people work to take care of themselves and their families. They want your help. Some managers consistently do more for their employees. If you’re not one of those managers, what is your problem?”

He’s not the only one stressing the importance of treating workers with respect and helping them develop — especially as more millennials and Gen Zers enter the workforce. But he’s one of the few with this much research behind what he recommends.

So here’s Tulgan’s list of what employees really care about:

  1. The ability to earn more money. This is all about the compensation package. What is the base pay and the value of the benefits? How much of the pay is fixed? How much is contingent on clear performance benchmarks tied directly to concrete actions the individual employee can control? What are the levers for driving the pay up or down?
  2. More control over their own schedules. What is the default schedule? How much flexibility is there? What are the levers for achieving more or less scheduling flexibility?
  3. Relationships at work. Who will the employee be working with? Which vendors, customers, co-workers, subordinates, and managers? What are the levers for controlling who the employee has a chance to work with (and/or avoid)?
  4. Task choice. Which regular tasks and responsibilities will the employee be assigned to do? How much of it is “grunt work” (tedious or otherwise difficult recurring tasks)? Are there any special projects? What are the levers for controlling the employee’s opportunities to work on more choice tasks, responsibilities or projects?
  5. Learning opportunities. What basic skills and knowledge will the employee be learning in order to handle his basic tasks and responsibilities? Will there be any special learning opportunities? What are the levers for controlling access to those special learning opportunities?
  6. Location and workspace. Where will the employee be located? How much control will the employee have over his workspace? Will there be much travel? Are there opportunities to be transferred to other locations? What are the levers for controlling these location issues? Within a given workspace, how much latitude will the employee have to customize his/her immediate surroundings?

Tulgan says the key to making these desires work for you has a whole lot to do with how you leverage them, as bargaining chips. He offers these examples:

  • “You don’t want to work on Thursday? I’m glad to know that. Here’s what I need from you by Wednesday at midnight.”

  • “You want your own office? Here’s what I need from you.”

  • “You want to bring your dog to work? Great. Here’s what I need from you.”

  • “You want to have lunch with the senior VP? Here’s what I need from you.”

“When managers are able to [leverage employee desires and business needs like this],” Tulgan says, “they are giving the employee control over [his or] her rewards by spelling out exactly what [he or] she needs to do to earn them.

“In exchange,” he says, “the employee will probably be willing to do a lot [more] — to work longer, harder, smarter, faster or better” — while getting a valuable and immediate reward in return.

Sure, you can say all this is intuitive, but I would counter with, “then why aren’t more employers doing it?”

Get Outta Here!

leaving officeMany contend that the unique perks the Googles and the Qualcomms of the world offer employees—on-site dry cleaners, pet-friendly workspaces, employer-hosted farmers markets—are as much about keeping people at work as they are about making their lives easier.

So it was interesting to read this recent Washington Post article, which highlighted a few companies that seem intent on helping their employees actually stay away from the office, and remain disconnected from their work after punching out for the day.

For instance:

  • Redwood, Calif.-based software company Evernote offers employees a $1,000 stipend for taking a full week away from work.
  • FullContact, a Denver-headquartered provider of contact-management software, gives employees $7,500 a year if they take time off of work. According to the Post, use of vacation time among the firm’s employees shot up after the policy was introduced.
  • Dutch design firm Heldergroen makes it impossible—or at least pretty uncomfortable—for workers to hang around the office past 6 p.m., when employee desks are lifted to the ceiling via steel cables, and all furniture is cleared from the floor.
  • Menlo Innovations opts not to offer technological tools for remote work. No employer-provided laptops, no virtual private networks and no remote-access software. The message to employees is clear, according to Richard Sheridan, the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based software design firm’s CEO. “You can’t take work home with you,” Sheridan told the Post.
  • Quirky, a crowd-sourced consumer product maker with headquarters in New York, takes things a step further, shutting down completely for four weeks out of the year. Founder and CEO Ben Kaufman began the practice in early 2013, closing Quirky’s doors the first week of every new quarter.

Yes, most of these and the other examples cited in the Post piece are smaller and/or start-up type tech companies. But, with larger, more traditional-minded organizations always looking for ways to help employees strike that ever-elusive work/life balance—and position themselves as “cool” places to work—wouldn’t it be interesting if we started to see more Fortune 500 firms co-opt this piece of the freewheelin’, forward-thinking start-up culture?

Part-Timers’ Woes Spur New Legislation

Members of Congress, states, municipalities and unions are reacting forcefully to complaints from many part-time workers that their work schedules have become too unpredictable and erratic to allow for time to take care of other important matters, such as child care or attending college classes, according to a front-page story in yesterday’s New York Times by reporter Steven Greenhouse.

As Greenhouse documents in his story, employers that make heavy use of part-time workers — such as retail and restaurant chains — are increasingly relying on “on-call” scheduling of their part-timers, with the aim of ensuring that hours worked are more closely tailored to peak customer traffic, which is not always predictable. This can result, as the story documents, in situations like that experienced by Mary Coleman, an employee of the Popeyes fast-food chain in Milwaukee, who — after taking an hour long bus commute — arrived at her job one day only to be told by her boss to go home without clocking in, even though she was scheduled to work that day.

U.S. Rep. George Miller (D.-Calif.) plans to introduce legislation this summer that would require organizations to pay their employees for an extra hour if they were notified they had to work with less than 24 hours’ notice. He also wants to guarantee that workers receive four hours’ worth of pay if they’re sent home after only a few hours on shift because of low customer traffic at the establishment at which they’re employed.

Here’s what Miller (who serves on the House Committee on Education and the Workforce) told Greenhouse:

It’s becoming more and more common to put employees in a very uncertain and tenuous position with respect to their schedules, and that ricochets if workers have families or other commitments. The employer community always says it abhors uncertainty and unpredictability, but they are creating an employment situation that has huge uncertainty and unpredictability for millions of Americans.”

The story notes that Vermont and San Francisco have laws that give workers the right to request flexible or predictable schedules to make it easier to take care of children or aging parents and that New York City is considering similar legislation. Unions such as the United Food and Commercial Workers and other organizations are promoting the “Fair Workweek Initiative,” which is encouraging the passage of legislation in cities across the nation that would discourage employers from using “just-in-time” scheduling.

Don’t expect this issue to disappear anytime soon. As Susan J. Lambert, a University of Chicago professor, told Greenhouse: “The issue of scheduling is going to be the next big effort on improving labor standards. To reduce unpredictability is important to keep women engaged in the labor force.”

Telework May Be Harmful to their Health

Telework has been taking its share of hits lately. And I’m not referring to Yahoo! CEO Marissa Mayer or Best Buy CEO Hubert Joly and their well-reported decisions to either end or limit telecommuting at their companies.

139246933 -- tired teleworkerI’m talking about research conducted awhile back — and recently reported on — by Timothy Golden, associate professor at the Lally School of Management & Technology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, N.Y. His study of 316 adult employees at a large computer company found working from home can enhance feelings of physical and mental fatigue in people who are already having a hard time balancing their personal and professional lives.

So, basically, working at home might not be so good for you. Tell that to the employees trying to convince you otherwise. Or the work/life experts telling you the same.

As noted in a piece on the Springer website, Golden’s work-at-home (or primarily work-at-home) participants were asked to answer questions about the levels of work-to-family conflict they experienced, including whether work kept them from family activities more than they would have liked, and whether they were too stressed to do the things they enjoy at home due to pressures of work. Golden also looked at levels of family-to-work conflict, such as time spent on family responsibilities interfering with work responsibilities, and difficulties concentrating on work because of stress from family responsibilities. Levels of work exhaustion and the extent and timing of telework were also assessed.

Golden and his crew found the more work and family demands conflicted, the more people suffered from exhaustion. Those with already high levels of work-family conflicts suffered higher exhaustion when they spent extensive time working from home, irrespective of whether they worked during traditional or non-traditional work hours. However, those who had lower levels of work-family conflicts suffered less exhaustion, which was further reduced by teleworking during either traditional or non-traditional work hours.

As this piece about Golden’s research in Parade magazine says:

You’d think with more time at home, and no commute, in most cases, that things would be easier. But when you work at home, there are constant reminders of the work/family conflict, such as laundry and dirty dishes — not to mention interruptions by children and other family members. This actually raises stress levels, and is why having a dedicated work space and boundaries is your best bet if you want to leave the world of cubicles. Then, when you add on things like possible poor posture, lack of exercise and bad eating … well, you can see why working at home may not be so ideal.”

In this piece from Science Newsline, Golden adds this comment:

Whereas individuals may adopt telework as a means to enhance their quality of life and reduce exhaustion, those with low levels of conflict between work and family seem able to benefit more from telework than those individuals who have high levels of conflict between their work and home.”

Specific though they may be to teleworkers’ stress, exhaustion and family conflicts, Golden’s findings do help underscore — or, at the very least, suggest — a general retreat from the glory days of flexible work and home offices. In fact, this piece in Slate features a much-more-recent study, the 2014 National Study of Employers from the Families and Work Institute, showing that overall, there’s less support among U.S. employers today for a flexible-work culture than there was in 2008.

This certainly flies in the face of the rhetoric out there, that employers better brace for the telecommuting/flexible-work revolution.

On the contrary, based on a recent study from the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College in Chestnut Hill, Mass., which I wrote about in this April 7 news analysis, it appears employers are hardly making strides to ready themselves for any such revolution, let alone ensure that their flexible work is even working. That study shows flexible arrangements aren’t being offered to most employees, and employers’ flexible-work options are too limited in scope and type to be effective.

As Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, director of the Sloan Center, told me then, “the take-home message here is ‘our work isn’t done.’ ”




On the Flexible-Work Bandwagon

flex workCompanies that cut telecommuting options may grab the headlines, but it’s safe to say that most of the corporate world has gotten on board with the flexible work concept.

A 2013 WorldatWork survey of 566 organizations, for example, found 88 percent of employers offering some form of telework options to employees, with just 3 percent of companies canceling telework programs within the last two years.

A more recent study from SHRM and the Families and Work Institute seems to confirm the rise of flexible work, at least in terms of when and where employees get the job done. The same survey, however, also finds provisions that afford employees extended time away from work on the wane.

SHRM and FWI’s 2014 National Study of Employers polled 1,051 employers of varying sizes in an analysis of changes occurring in the workplace since 2008. The number of employers reporting they offer options such as occasional remote work was 67 percent in this year’s poll, compared to 50 percent who said they did the same in 2008.

Further, 92 percent of respondents said they permit at least some groups of workers to have control over when they have breaks, up from 84 percent in ’08. Eighty-one percent of employers reported they let workers periodically change their starting and quitting times within some range of hours, while 82 percent indicated they allow employees to take time off during the workday for important family and personal needs without loss of pay.

The survey finds employers becoming less flexible, however, with regard to options that involve employees spending significant time away from work. For example, the number of companies providing job-sharing situations dipped from 29 percent in 2008 to 18 percent today.

In addition, fewer firms offer sabbaticals now compared to four years ago (28 percent this year, versus 38 percent in 2008), with career breaks for family or personal responsibilities less common as well (52 percent today, versus 64 percent in 2008). Providing the 12 weeks of leave mandated by the Family and Medical Leave Act remains the norm for most categories of employees.

“This study is a reflection of the changes occurring in our nation,” said Kenneth Matos, senior director of research at the New York-based Families and Work Institute and lead study author, in a statement. “More than just data on policies and paychecks, this research shows us how the personal and the professional are connected, and how business is reinventing workplaces for a continually changing workforce.”

With rapid technological and demographic shifts taking place, organizations must adapt, said Matos.

“Creating an effective and flexible workplace can help organizations meet the business needs of today and adjust to rapidly changing needs.”

When an Employee is Terminally Ill

In this season of thinking of others, I thought I’d share this online article I came across recently, addressing how best to handle all workers when one announces he or she is terminally ill.

dv360033The piece — by Lynne Curry, president of Anchorage, Alaska-based The Growth Company — begins with a reader’s question about “Allen,” who “occupies a critical position in our company” and has just let his employer know he has bone-marrow cancer and less than one year to live.

“Allen doesn’t want to quit work and, even if he wanted to, can’t afford to do so … . We’ve never faced anything like this before. What can you recommend we … do to handle this well?” the question reads.

Everything about Curry’s answer makes sense. From going over his benefits and granting him work flexibility to giving him confidentiality — without falling into the trap of assuming, just because he’s told a select group of friends, that anyone has blanket permission to discuss his situation — the response underscores the importance of facing, rather than ignoring, this reality.

Every workplace faces it at one time or another. “Some organizations make the mistake of attempting to ignore reality and thus relegate the dying employee to work/life’s fringes,” Curry writes. “Co-workers generally need the opportunity to support Allen, if only to say, ‘I’ll be here for you.’ ”

And managers, she adds, “need to reach out to these secondary sufferers who may ache for Allen or have feelings about the extra work they may have to pick up.” She even suggests that letting Allen train his successor might be more appreciated and productive than “ghoulish.”

Facing the end of a life head-on hits a real nerve with me right now. Both my parents are in the throes of failing health and are being “guided” by my dad to do whatever can be done and be a realist about what can’t. He’s shown me all the boxes, and where the files are. He’s making sure we’ll be as trouble-free as possible. He’s passing the baton. And we’re honoring his approach and attitude in return.

I can only think that a manager or HR professional leading ill or grieving employees with the same straightforward respect for everyone involved will be doing his or her organization a monumental service.


Thoughts on Thanksgiving

Two different surveys showed up recently with some employment-related things to think about this Thanksgiving.

89319425-- thanksgivingThey’re not related … er, then again, maybe they are.

One, a new Thanksgiving survey from Chicago-based CareerBuilder, finds one in five workers (19 percent) plan to spend Thanksgiving this year with co-workers either in or outside the office. Most of them (14 percent) have to work the holiday.

Which brings us to the second poll from Menlo Park, Callif.-based OfficeTeam that finds 24 percent of workers are most thankful this holiday for — aside from salary — their friendly co-workers. (This was followed by a good benefits program, 20 percent; easy commute, 16 percent; challenging assignments, 15 percent, supportive manager, 11 percent; other, 9 percent; flexible hours, 3 percent; and don’t know/no answer, 1 percent. (Here is a report on the survey, and an infographic.)

So safe to say, if that many employees have to be working on our heaviest-travelled, family-focused national holiday, then at least it’s a consolation that they value the friendship and pleasantness of the employees alongside them in the same boat.

If you think about it, says Robert Hosking, executive direction of OfficeTeam, it makes a lot of sense that co-worker relationships are this important.

“Many full-time workers spend more than half of their waking hours at the office,” says Hosking, “so having friendly colleagues can make all the difference when it comes to job satisfaction.”

So what can HR leaders do with this information? I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to encourage behaviors and nurture environments that allow employees to do more of what OfficeTeam recommends they do to increase workplace happiness: socialize with co-workers, step away from the desk, explore flexible-scheduling options, take advantage of perks, and set goals and meet them.

Who knows, with enough focus on the above, maybe “friendly employers” will top next year’s gratitude list.



Flexibility is Still in Fashion

flexibilityRemember all the fuss that followed Yahoo’s decision to put an end to telecommuting?

HRE was among those wondering aloud if other large employers would follow Marissa Mayer’s bold example. Sure enough, some well-known companies soon made similar moves. Best Buy, for instance, squashed its much-publicized Results Only Work Program just weeks later. More recently, reports have surfaced that Hewlett-Packard is in the process of enacting a policy that requires employees to work at the office and not from home.

In our line of work, we often debate how many companies have to be doing something before we can safely call it a trend. But, these notable examples aside, new data suggests that trimming employees’ telework options has yet to become all the rage. Far from it, actually.

Scottsdale, Ariz.-based WorldatWork’s Survey on Workplace Flexibility 2013, conducted in conjunction with National Flex Day and National Work & Family Month, finds 88 percent of organizations offering some form of telework options to employees, with teleworking, flex-time and part-time schedules the most common flexibility programs being offered by employers. The poll saw just 3 percent of companies canceling telework programs in the last two years.

The survey of 566 WorldatWork members also found 64 percent of respondents reporting their workforce would say flexible work programs have a positive or extremely positive effect on employee engagement. Sixty-five percent and 73 percent said the same with regard to employee motivation and employee satisfaction, respectively.

In addition, 69 percent of those polled said career progression or development opportunities are not impacted by an employee’s use of flexibility.

The companies where flexibility programs seem to work best are those in which “the concept of flexibility is part of the organization’s culture, and where employees feel free to request flexibility as needed,” said Rose Stanley, WorldatWork practice leader for benefits, work/life, flexibility and recognition, in a statement.

She added, however, that work remains to be done in many companies, pointing to the mere 17 percent of respondents saying they provide training to managers on how to successfully manage employees with flexible work arrangements.

“… While many organizations are utilizing one or more flexibility programs, significant improvements still need to be made in terms of training managers who supervise employees with flexible work arrangements.”

Open Workspaces: Optimal or Overrated?

open officeIf your company is among those considering a drastic redesign of your “conventional” work environment, you may not want to tear down those cubicle walls just yet.

Well-known companies such as Campbell’s Soup, Google and Microsoft, and even government agencies such as the General Services Administration, have made news by eliminating cubicles and other barriers between employees to create more innovative, open and collaborative work areas, and save space while they’re at it.

Some recent research, however, suggests such open-office spaces—if not done right—can be a drain on employees’ productivity as well as their health and job satisfaction.


• The 2013 U.S. Workplace Survey, conducted by Washington-based architecture, design, planning and consulting firm Gensler, polled 2,035 U.S. workers, finding that only one in four employees were in an optimal workplace setting. While the firm points out its research “shows that effective work can happen in both open and enclosed environments,” it also found that office layouts without walls could be rendered ineffective if open design schemes didn’t also allow for enough privacy to let employees focus on their individual tasks.

• A recent study appearing in the Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment and Health found employees in an open office set-up reported getting sick 62 percent more than their cubicle-dwelling colleagues.

• A University of Calgary study analyzed a group of 21 employees completing surveys at three stages: prior to moving from a personal office to an open-plan layout, four weeks after making the move, and six months after the move. Researchers assessed employees’ satisfaction with their physical environment, physical stress, worker relations, perceived job performance and the use of open office protocols at each interval. Employees reported more stress and less satisfaction on the job after making the move, and their dissatisfaction did not abate after the six-month adjustment period, according to researchers.

While the bugs are clearly still being worked out, it seems the Googles and Microsofts of the world are far from alone in opting for more open office layouts. In fact, the International Management Facility Association estimates 70 percent of American employees work in open-plan environments. So, if open workspaces are indeed the wave of the future, how can employers avoid the aforementioned problems?

The answer, according to Diane Hoskins, co-CEO at Gensler, may be in creating a sort of hybrid environment, and giving employees the freedom to determine how and where they get things done.

“Balanced workplaces where employees have the autonomy to choose their workspace based on the task or project at hand are more effective and higher performing,” said Hoskins, in a statement announcing Gensler’s 2013 survey findings.

“This is not about mobility,” she continued. “In fact, those who choose to remain in the office are more engaged and satisfied than those who have to be mobile most of the day. Our research indicates that employees will leverage autonomy for optimal productivity when given the choice in where and how to work as well as the technology and infrastructure to support their choice.”

Disrespecting Dads at Work

disrespecting dadWell, here’s a fine Father’s Day gift for some of the dedicated Dads out there.

New research finds middle-class men who take on “non-traditional” caregiver roles are treated more poorly by their colleagues at work than men who stay closer to conventional gender norms in the family.

The news is actually worse for women without children and mothers with non-traditional caregiving arrangements. Researchers from the University of Toronto and the Long Island University Post campus found those two groups are shown the shabbiest treatment of all.

The study authors based their results on two separate field studies, each using mail-in surveys. The first poll was geared toward unionized workers in female-centric occupations, with the second survey targeted at public-service workers in a male-dominated workforce. For the studies’ purposes, traditional gender norms were defined as men who did less caregiving and domestic tasks at home, and women who did more.

So, it seems that many employees whose home lives don’t look like a 1950s sitcom are having a tougher time getting respect around the office, be they man or woman.

“Their hours are no different than other employees’, but their co-workers appear to be picking up on their non-traditional caregiving roles and are treating them disrespectfully,” according to Jennifer Berdahl, associate professor of organizational behavior at the University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, who co-authored the study with Sue Moon, assistant professor at the College of Management at LIU.

The studies—to be published in the Journal of Social Issues—found “consequences for any employee who violated traditional gender roles when it came to having a family,” according to the authors.

So it shouldn’t be surprising that the study saw fathers and mothers following more traditional gender norms experiencing the least harassment in the workplace.

Interestingly, the authors indicate these results suggest a worker’s gender role at home influences how they are treated at work more than his or her job performance. As such, men and women may well feel pressure to conform to traditional roles at home, says Berdahl.

“They may choose not to have children if these traditional roles are not feasible for them, or get in the way of family or career goals.”

Berdahl also notes that workplace treatment differs from pay and promotions, and points out that taking time off to care for family can also hamstring men and women alike in terms of opportunities for salary increases and advancement.

“What we really need,” she says, “is a more flexible workplace and policies that protect employees who choose to use that flexibility or not, regardless of their gender.”