Counselor

Flex Time

In the battle to stand out from a corporate culture perspective, companies are increasingly using flexible work schedules to attract and retain good employees.

For years Dawne Kopecky-Lewis worked in “executive operations” for AT&T, a nebulous, overarching title that demanded Kopecky-Lewis devote 80 hours a week to planning immaculately conceived and flawless corporate events. Speaking of her former job, which she says was exciting but overly demanding, there was an “inability to have a personal life,” Kopecky-Lewis recalls. Admittedly, she and her husband “don’t have children. We have our careers. Those were our children and we gave them everything we had.”

Until she didn’t. In 2012 Kopecky-Lewis, in her early 40s, put the brakes on an otherwise lucrative, ambitious and successful career, and jumped wholeheartedly into retirement. And it was lovely. Her last job “was the job that never ended,” she says. “It was zero time off and not a chance of getting anything wrong.”

Suddenly, she says, she had time to relax, slow down, and finally take a breath. “My transition to retirement was, ‘I can’t even believe I’m here. Thank the Lord.’”

The break, however, didn’t last long. A promotional product company, Bob Lilly Professional Promotions (asi/254138), came calling, and wanted to know if Kopecky-Lewis might help head up the company’s e-commerce solutions program. Her initial response? No. But then Bob Lilly, Jr., the distributor’s president and CEO, offered Kopecky-Lewis a work option that her past employer had not: a flexible work schedule that would allow her to work from home more than one day a week. “I definitely would have said no to the job if not for the flexible work program,” she says. “I was not going to give up my time,” now that she had regained it. “I had zero flex in my prior career.” And she thought, “my God, do I want to turn that switch back on?”

Yet, while her previous job offered zero flexibility, she has plenty in this one. Most weeks Kopecky-Lewis’s work schedule looks like this: Monday and Wednesday are spent in the office, Tuesday and Thursday, she’s in the office until 1 pm, and Friday, she works from home.

What Kopecky-Lewis, now director of programs for the Dallas-based distributor, represents is a growing mass of employees who are increasingly taking advantage of flexible work programs offered more and more by companies today. “We realized several years ago that in many cases the best people available for a particular job are not able to conform to a traditional 40-hour work week in our offices,” says Lilly. “To attract and keep these folks, we decided to experiment with flexible schedules and remote work.”

Apparently, it’s paid off. The company, Lilly says, has grown 300% in the past four years, in part because flexible work programs have allowed them to retain top talent.

Flex is in Vogue

Lilly and his company are far from alone in the movement toward flexible work schedules. A recent Telework Trendlines study by WorldatWork found that the number of employees working from home at least one day a month rose 74% between 2005 and 2010, from 9.9 million to 17.2 million. While not a new concept, a greater number of businesses inside the ad specialty industry and out are offering flexible work programs to help employees regain more autonomy and work/life balance, as well as improve workplace efficiencies at the same time.

“People are genuinely happy when they are free to live their life and work in the way that works for them,” says Maren Donovan CEO of Zirtual, a virtual executive assistant service based in San Francisco, and an expert on flexible work programs. Flex work programs thrive, she says, because employees are “provided with a rare opportunity to achieve a work/life balance on their own terms and they are more productive and efficient because of it.”

For companies, flexible work programs can increase corporate efficiencies as well, while also boosting employee morale. Job costs, like rising gas prices for commuters, a push for more work/life balance and inexpensive technology that can connect workers for pennies these days are all inspiring companies to embrace flexible work programs in a way they couldn’t in years past.

But thinking and doing can be two very different things warn some experts. One of the greatest challenges of starting a flexible work program can be building trust between employer and employee, says Jody Thompson, co-founder of CultureRx and creator of the Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), an approach to flexible schedules that puts the onus of the program on worker autonomy rather than corporate oversight.

It’s about “managing work, not people,” says Thompson, who’s based in Minneapolis. Under the ROWE model, employees are given tasks and are solely responsible for their completion within an agreed- upon time frame and objective between employee and manager. Instead of focusing on how many days an employee is allowed flex time, for example, a worker and manager instead focus on nothing more than what work needs to be done. Doing so gets away from “paternalistic” management that can turn workers into “complacent clock watchers,” Thompson says.

Certainly, making sure employees are truly given autonomy outside the office is crucial to keeping them productive when not in a traditional work environment, experts insist. That’s been the case for HandStands Promotional Products (asi/59525), a supplier based in Salt Lake City. For 15 years, the company has allowed workers to focus on tasks rather than perks by offering them the ability to prepare and package the company’s products at home.

At the moment, “we have 25 active packagers and about 35 that we use on a flex format,” says Jason Fogg, the company’s general manager. Working an average of 25 hours a week, the at-home packagers pick up their jobs (a collection of imprinted products that they have to insert with other items into individual bags) from HandStands’ office, with instructions to drop off the work kit the next day, packaging complete. When and how that happens in between pick-up and drop-off is completely up to the workers, who get paid per packaged piece.

“They might do it at night watching TV or when the kids are at school,” Fogg says. “It doesn’t matter to us,” as long as they drop off the goods by 10 a.m. the next day. “Occasionally you run into a problem, but far and away they’re really good, and we’ve been doing this for 15 years,” with the core of their 25 packagers having tenure for the whole 15 years.

That’s absolutely the right way to establish a flexible work program, says Thompson, because the program’s focus is on the work and accountability, not simply the freedom to work from home. “Everybody has to be really crystal clear about what they’re delivering,” Thompson says. Employees should ask themselves, “what are my measurable results?” at the start of each job.

In fact, Fogg says, HandStands’ employees are so in control of how, where and when they complete each kit that one has decided she’d prefer to package goods at the company’s facility. “She liked getting paid by the piece,” Fogg says, but wanted to control when and where her work was done. So the company set her up with a work station at the office. She completes the kits on her own schedule either at the office or at home, depending on what works better for her schedule each week.

More to the point, having packagers take goods home is a huge cost savings for HandStands, Fogg says. In an industry where orders frequently ebb and flow, “having a work force sitting around with nothing to do cost our business a lot of money.” The program was initiated in part to weather those shifts with “a group of people who don’t need a paycheck every single day.”

Goal-Oriented Flexibility

Thompson warns that too many of today’s companies, while well-intentioned in their desire to start a flexible work program, too often focus on the wrong elements, effectively sucking the motivation out of an otherwise well-intentioned program.

Part of the problem can stem from companies sending a message of mistrust to staff by micromanaging their time outside of the office. But Jeremy Lott, president of Top 40 supplier SanMar (asi/84863), says there’s a place for metrics within these programs. Allowing 350 of the company’s 400 customer service reps to work from home has been a huge boon to the company, Lott says. But monitoring and metrics have also been a part of that program, particularly in determining its success. Since launching the program almost nine years ago, Lott says, the average tenure of a customer service employee is eight years, estimating it was as little as half that before the program started.

“For white collar jobs [like sales and customer service] where many employees are knowledge workers and enabled with portable computing tools to begin with, more and more organizations are seeing that really those types of employees can be productive anywhere,” says Joyce Maroney, director of the Workforce Institute at Kronos, a work force research think tank based in Chelmsford, MA.

What’s more, Lott says, for a place like Seattle, where SanMar is based, land is expensive and at a premium. To pay for and house 400 customer service employees at corporate headquarters everyday would be an exorbitant cost. Parking space alone, Lott says, could set the company back substantially. And allowing employees to log in to a call center network from home lets them save on gas and commute time while regaining personal time as well.

That said, working from home can have its challenges. Namely an inability to build cohesion among employees who rarely spend time together. SanMar, for one, overcomes this challenge by having its customer service teams hold “weekly huddles,” Lott says, in which they catch up and brainstorm via video chats. To make customer service seamless, the program allows reps in one state to roll their calls to a rep in another city or state while they’re away from their desk. Need to run to the bathroom? One rep can instant message another to say they’ll be away for five minutes and have calls rolled during that time. “It’s seamless,” Lott says, “and customers don’t know that different customer service reps are potentially thousands of miles apart.”

That seamlessness works when both communication and camaraderie are strong among remote employees, says Kim Shepherd, CEO of Decision Toolbox, a virtual recruiting company in Irvine, CA. “An employee is not going to stay with you if they’re on an island,” Shepherd says.

Meaning, employees have to be connected even if they’re not sitting right next to each other. How to do that? Create regular virtual meetings among team members that include a visual connection, not just an auditory one, Shepherd says. In addition, she advises, companies should create newsletters or opportunities for staff to share personal news – births, weddings, promotions, etc. – much like they would if they were talking in the office or company lunch room.

“Especially when they interact daily, I think a group remote from each other can be just as cohesive as long as they find the right frequency of personal contact,” says Paul Schwada, director of Locomotive Solutions, a Chicago-based business consulting firm.

That’s crucial for promotional product companies looking to remain competitive in a marketplace that continues to offer more progressive work environments. Ultimately, Maroney says, “companies who are thinking actively about how to provide employees with flexibility are going to be more successful in attracting and holding on to good employees than those who don’t.”