Workplace flexibility: Its time has come

06/25/2014 3:17 PM

09/17/2014 4:11 PM

This week, President Barack Obama officially called workplace flexibility a basic need, lamenting employer policies that don’t allow it.

Already, almost all full-time workers say they have some control over when and where they work for their employers, but managing those arrangements hasn’t come naturally to all involved: There has been a big difference between offering flexibility and embracing it.

That seems to have been the case at the Miami Dolphins. Earlier this year, when Dolphins scout Nate Sullivan took a phone call from general manager Dennis Hickey, Sullivan had no clue that he was going to be fired. He had been working from home for 10 years and claims the phone call was the first time he learned his new boss wasn’t happy with his remote working status, he said recently. The arrangement had been allowed by three prior Dolphins general managers.

Sullivan says Hickey simply told him that working remotely “just did not work for him” and that the 17-year Dolphins scout was being terminated. Sullivan had been working from home in Central Florida to better assist in medical treatment for his wife, JoAnne, who suffers from cystic fibrosis. His attorney, Jason Harr, said Sullivan was not given the option to return to the office; Harr, of The Harr Law Firm in Daytona Beach, has sent an intent-to-litigate letter to the franchise and the NFL alleging Sullivan’s recent dismissal violated the Americans with Disabilities Act.

Through outside counsel at Akerman Senterfitt in Miami, the Dolphins declined to comment on the pending matter.

Workplace expert Cali Yost said a crucial component was missing in the Dolphins’ scout’s flexible work arrangement: “The danger for him [Sullivan] was that there was nothing in writing, no plan that tracks how the arrangement was working so that when there was a change in leadership, they were working off a set of facts rather than an informal understanding.”

Yost says most organizations still believe work/life flexibility is a perk. They don’t bother to train managers or employees how to manage flexible arrangements, assuming that anyone who uses them will figure it out on his or her own. “They think it’s not worth it to look at how to put structure around it,” said Yost, CEO of Flex+Strategy Group/Work+Life Fit Inc.

New research shows why employers should care about flexible arrangements. A national probability survey of more than 500 full-time workers commissioned by the Flex+Strategy Group found almost all full-time employees (97 percent) reported having some form of work-life flexibility in 2013. Of those who had it, 55 percent said they used informal occasional flexibility and 42 percent had a formal agreement.

The research also found that most workers who have flexibility are figuring it out as they go. Of that 97 percent, only 40 percent received any training or guidance on how to use their flexibility to make it work for all. Those who had received guidance were more likely to think that their employer’s commitment to work-life flexibility was strong. A majority agreed that loyalty and performance suffered without work-life accommodations.

The survey also shows a third of workers have flexibility to do their jobs outside their workplaces: 31 percent of full-time workers said they did 50 percent to 100 percent of their work outside their employer’s location. Yost said this illustrates that flexibility is no longer a perk. Instead, it has become a core operating strategy that requires a strategic approach. She suggests organizations train managers and employees on best practices, such as how to keep communication open and to track results. Warning signs that the arrangement isn’t working might include the employee’s exclusions from meetings and conference calls, for example.

Tom Loffredo, Fort Lauderdale managing shareholder of Gray Robinson, believes that success with flexible arrangements comes from workplace culture as much as from training. At his law firm, staffers often negotiate their start times and end times with the lawyers they work for and make the arrangement formal. With technology enabling communication, lawyers are able to work from home as needed.

“We have a culture that says people are people first ... When they have needs that don’t fit in with the work schedule, you have to respect that,” Loffredo said. Of course, in return, the firm and the clients must get their needs met, too, he said. If a business can help employees manage their personal challenges, while still being productive, it’s possible for everyone to win, he said.

At NASCO, an Atlanta claims processing company recognized as one of the Best Places to Work , about 60 percent of the 700 employees work from home two days a week, a highly touted benefit. The key to making those arrangements work, says the company, is training both managers and staff on the details, including handling conference calls from home, creating a home workspace and keeping co-workers abreast of projects and progress.

“Employees are well aware that if they are not performing, the manager has the right to take the remote arrangement away,” said Barbara Bell-Dees, vice president of Human Resources & People Services at NASCO.

In the past year, we’ve seen companies such as Yahoo, Best Buy and Bank of America send mixed signals on flexibility and work-from-home arrangements. Debate over the merits and drawbacks rages as technology makes it easier to get jobs done anywhere, anytime. Many managers still strongly believe that it’s hard to be collaborative without face time. Yet, the Dolphins aren’t the only employer to find that rejecting flexible arrangements could get them in legal trouble. A lawsuit against Ford Motor Co., also raises questions about whether companies can deny work-from-home arrangements.

Ford employee Jane Harris, a resale steel buyer, asked to work from home four days a week because she suffered from irritable bowel syndrome. Ford denied Harris’s request, saying her presence in the office was necessary. She said her days consisted of phone calls and emails from her desk. The American with Disabilities Act lawsuit was brought by the U.S. Equal Employment Opportunity Commission on behalf of Harris and has been sent back by an appeals court to a lower court.

Some believe that regardless of the lawsuit’s outcome, it could spark employers to put more thought into what exactly makes coming to an office every day a job requirement.

In Sullivan’s case, he wants his job back, with medical benefits. His attorney, Harr, said that in 17 years, the Dolphins scout never was given a poor performance review or received verbal discipline. Sullivan can review film from anywhere, but if he had been asked to return to the office permanently, he would have done it, Harr said. Harr also said he has received indications that Sullivan’s grievance can be resolved favorably.

If workplace flexibility is to be embraced the way Obama envisions, it must be more than just a policy. Managers and employees must be educated on how to put it into practice — and be well aware of how it benefits all.

About Cindy Krischer Goodman

Cindy Krischer Goodman

@balancegal

Cindy Krischer Goodman's weekly column on work and family issues will explore the conflicting demands of career and personal life.

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