Be Flexible, Attract Talent


April 7, 2009

by Marshall Goldsmith

In this time of economic uncertainty, the pressure to control costs is at a peak. With hiring freezes and layoffs, companies increasingly are asking themselves how to produce the results they need with limited or decreasing human resources.

One innovative firm in the Bay Area, Flexperience, has created a different talent market: experienced professionals who seek flexible work opportunities. I spoke with Lisa Kay Solomon, vice-president of business development for Flexperience, about how organizations can build sustainable talent management strategies through flexible work. Edited excerpts of our conversation follow:

Why is flexibility so important? Don’t we have to work more, not less, to stay competitive globally?

Over the next 5 to 10 years, all trends indicate that flexibility will move from a “nice to have” perk to a necessary condition of employment. As aging boomers slowly retire, they are being replaced by upcoming millennials who have a very different attitude about work and the ideal job, placing flexibility and quality of life over steady career advancement and security.

Technology makes it possible to work almost from anywhere, and the increasingly global economy will force mobility and flexibility in dramatic ways. Organizations will have to fundamentally rethink how they hire and sustain the best and brightest.

So what are some of the best practices around flexible work and flextime?

What we’ve learned from our clients and partners is that flexibility is not a “one size fits all” proposition. It has to work within the established culture, values, and business requirements of the company. Additionally, the company has to provide the right technologies that enable its employees to be productive anytime, anywhere, such as laptops, VPNs, PDAs, video cameras, high-speed access, and teleconferencing tools. These allow team players to focus on the work they need to get done from anywhere, anytime, without being hindered by office-time logistics and excessive travel expenses.

A lot of times, flexible work practices start as an informal process launched as a one-off to keep a key employee engaged. If these informal programs demonstrate anecdotal and measurable results, they often set the stage for a more formal flex program down the road.

How are companies responding?

Some companies get it immediately … they are grateful to have a partner that helps them find and coach their talents on how to work in a very fluid and flexible way. Others are slower to adapt their systems to handle “nontraditional” work resources into their processes. Many of them know that they need to change, and we’re starting to see more companies appointing a person or task force responsible for exploring a flexible work policy.

It has been particularly exciting to see how our initial successes have helped shaped new dialogs within management teams about their future human capital strategies. For example, one of our Fortune 500 clients has hired its first part-time direct hire because of the very evident efficiency and commensurate high ROI it experienced with one of our part-time placements. Another, Timbuk2, hired its first part-time HR director because it saw the incredible value she could provide during her three days in the office. Method Home Products used one of our professionals to cover a maternity backfill and saw firsthand the benefits of avoiding extra stress on the other members of the department by asking them to cover her work while she was out. This creates goodwill among everyone, leading to a more sustainable and loyal workforce.

What about people who want to work flexibly? What advice would you give them on how to go about advocating to their employer that they should be allowed to work in nontraditional ways?

There is an increasing amount of useful data and advice on the business benefits and cost savings around flexible work. Every employee looking to change their work arrangement should go armed with a business case on how the new arrangement delivers a measurable ROI to the company.

Additionally, the employee should have a clear communication plan that details when and how s/he will be available to the rest of the team and what they can expect from her. Credibility and trust are absolutely essential when starting out these arrangements. Every missed call or deadline could be a deadly strike against their reputational asset, leading to general cynicism about the program. There are some great resources out there, like the When Work Works program, that provide extensive guides for both the manager and the employee on how to engage in productive conversation about flexible work.

What advice do you have for companies that want to start a flexible work program?

Creating a flexible work program is a process. We encourage our clients to find a cross section of respected performers throughout the company to support the program. It’s especially helpful to have a senior-level champion to shepherd the effort. The other critical element is to start slow, with low expectations … kick it off with a “pilot” and communicate to the different stakeholders what you hope this “experiment” can teach you. Communicate early successes widely while managing expectations appropriately along the way. You rarely get docked when a pilot program doesn’t turn out 100% as expected, but you will certainly hear it if you launch a companywide program that falls flat!

For more about Flexperience, got to