Kyra Cavanaugh is President and Founder of LifemeetsWork, a provider of workshops, consulting and candidate search services that help its clients retool how work gets done. In this interview, she describes how the recession has impacted companies’ focus on flexible work practices and shares strategies her clients use to get the most bang for their buck.

What is the state of flexible arrangement practices in the US given the current economy?
Where in past recessions organizations were looking to make drastic labor reductions, this time there’s been a sense among companies that they don’t want to get rid of their best workers. So there’s been a lot more use of creative strategies: condensed work weeks, pay reductions, furloughs, sabbaticals, unpaid leave and reductions in daily work hours.

There’s a lot of debate about the value of doing this, but what I find interesting is that the economy has encouraged organizations to look at workforce issues more creatively than we were before the recession. So now there’s the potential to look back and find that, for instance, condensed work weeks really do work – they do boost morale. And so there may be more of a tendency to look at those programs long term.

There’s been a lot of discussion in the press lately about how flex work may be in jeopardy in a lot of organizations. Do you agree? Why or why not?
There are studies that have shown, and in my own research I’ve been able to demonstrate as well, that organizations have really not abandoned their flexible workforce strategies. If anything, companies are now really starting to look for new ways to encourage employee engagement and to cut costs and improve morale, and a lot of companies are looking to flexible work strategies because they’re so inexpensive to implement and maintain.

There was a Washington Post article out not too long ago that caused a big reaction in the industry on both sides of the issue. Essentially, the argument was that flexible workers need to go back to the workplace because, “out of sight, out of mind” – they may be the first ones on the chopping block. We see evidence of women cutting short their maternity leave in order to get back to work. You know, this whole sense of fear in the workplace that’s around flexible work arrangements – it’s affecting employee attitudes.

If you take a step back for a second, what we’re seeing, then, is organizations not abandoning their flexible workplace strategies, but flexible employees really being nervous about it. I think this calls us to our better nature and to a big opportunity to manage employees not out of fear – fear of losing their jobs – but instead reassure employees that flexible work strategies benefit the organization overall.

What are you seeing among your clients in terms of flex practices that deliver the most bang for their buck?
First of all, flexible work strategies have to fit the culture of the organization. That means that some strategies aren’t going to be a possibility, or at least not right away. I think it’s more important to think about this as an approach and not as a series of tactics. So it’s important to think about it and plan it out in advance.

That said, it doesn’t need to take over your life. It can be as simple as determining what the flex programs are that you’re going to offer to your employees, and then setting the rules of engagement that are non-negotiable. So they might be:

  • core hours,
  • a standard meeting time or a certain time where you have to be in the office, or
  • not working from home or in a flexible way until you’ve worked for the organization for a year.

There are all sorts of rules of engagement that organizations put in place. Once you’ve determined those rules of engagement, leading-edge companies put together an agreement or a charter that lays out all of these rules and engages the employee and manager in a conversation so that everyone understands the expectations. Both parties sign it and then it’s reviewed twice a year.

This creates an ongoing conversation in the organization to make sure that the rules are being followed and that performance is being enhanced and not inhibited.

Name two flex practices that are good for a company to use that has never used them before – to test the waters and not assume a lot of up-front costs?
Tactically, two good options are flexible start and end times – where employees work from 8 to 5 or from 9 to 6, for example – and condensed work weeks, or summer hours. This second one is typically set up as either:

  • four 10-hour days and the office is closed on Friday,
  • employees choose and work their hours on a staggered schedule, or
  • extra time is worked during the week so the office can close early on Friday.

Again with these options, it’s important for specific expectations to be set up front so nothing is misinterpreted.