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To Keep Stable Workforce, Embrace Workplace Flexibility

Artur Marciniec Alamy Stock Photo.jpg

Image: Artur Marciniec - Alamy Stock Photo
Add another set of research statistics to the growing body demonstrating that workplace flexibility is a win-win for companies. McKinsey recently released survey research they conducted recently with the Marshall Plan for Moms and found that 45% of mothers with young children who left the workforce during the first years of the pandemic cited a lack of childcare as a deciding factor, as did 14% of fathers. Why does the consulting firm think this is a problem? As they put it:
Many of these parents are mid-tenure employees who enhance the social fabric of their organizations—as many women managers have done in supporting colleagues’ health and well-being during the COVID-19 pandemic. If these parents do drop out, companies stand to lose functional expertise, institutional knowledge, managerial capabilities, and mentorship at a time when such skills are needed most.
Among McKinsey's recommendations for retaining this talent-rich employee class: institute flexible workplace scheduling policies, including flexible hours and location. Survey respondents were twice as likely to take jobs at employers which had this as part of their company culture compared to respondents who wanted set, predictable schedules.
So, what's standing in the way of a no-brainer flexible adoption? Human nature — in all its wildly variable forms.
If one of the big workplace research discoveries of the early 20th century was that standardizing workplace routines and processes could improve workplace productivity, one of the things we've learned 100 years later is that there's a difference between standardizing processes for maximum productivity and standardizing people's working conditions. There's a sustained sentiment we see in surveys where people want more work-life balance. Although nearly every life includes core activities like sleeping, eating, socializing and relaxing, few lives are exactly alike. Why shouldn't jobs take the same approach — there are core tasks, but how they get done can vary depending on the person and the circumstances?
However, human nature also includes a natural tendency toward hierarchies. And in some quarters, it's a prerogative of management that their subordinates work on the schedule that best works for management. What works best for managers may not work down the org chart — workforce scheduling solution provider Circadian has found an increased rate of absenteeism linked to management-mandated work schedules, and Slack's Future Forum most recent pulse survey found that worker attrition was driven by rigid in-office expectations — but depending on the organizational culture, managers may view part of their job as scheduling and deploying workers in a way that works for the company's goals, not for the worker's preferences. Setting priorities is both a reflection of and a way to enforce a hierarchy.
Flexible scheduling will work when workplace leaders stop treating it as an either-or situation —either you're all in on the workplace priorities or you want to work on your own schedule. Done right, flexible scheduling is like improv comedy — there are a core set of conditions, and the people who agree to those conditions build together on the "Yes! And …?" mindset.
In a company, this approach could look like Zillow's recent decision to institute "core collaboration hours" from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Pacific Time, with the expectation that group meetings happen during that time, but employees can do their other work at the times that work best for them. Or it could look like Microsoft's "triple peak day," in which workers cluster their work tasks around specific times of the day and use intervening periods for childcare, self-care or something that is, frankly, nobody's business but their own so long as they're tendering their deliverables on time.
There will always be tasks that require sustained presence, there will always be tasks that require coordinating in-person collaboration and skillsets, and there will always be tasks that require people on-site. Some jobs will be comprised solely of these tasks. The questions workplace leaders can and should be asking now: Do they know enough about the jobs under their umbrella to be able to assess which job-related tasks require being pinned to a specific place and time, and which tasks can be done with some flexibility and coordination? Can they use that knowledge to give their workers more flexibility? And what communication processes can help maintain collaboration without sacrificing schedule flexibility?
Shifting to the "yes, and …?" mindset in flexible scheduling helps companies reject the limiting mindset of an either-or choice. It's a real growth opportunity — both in human capital and in the bottom line — that requires real commitment and mindful management.