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The Business Case for Workplace Flexibility

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Fri Aug 24 2012

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(From The Huffington Post) -- "Job Killer." Those are the two words you are most likely to hear uttered by most American CEOs when confronted with proposals to enact family-friendly work policies.

This was true in the battles for earned sick days, paid maternity leave, increases in the minimum wage, and even workplace flexibility. Sure, there are exceptions. In fact, the exceptions are the employers who are doing well -- in fact better than their competitors -- by doing good for their employees.

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If we are to create a new agenda for family/work policies, employers and employees have to take a seat at the same table and recognize their mutual gains. Working families have a better chance to "have it all" -- a job and a family -- in a family friendly workplace. Likewise, businesses are better positioned "to have it all" -- profitability and worker loyalty when they can create a family friendly workplace.

It's become unrealistic to expect employers to provide workplace flexibility because of a belief in gender equality or because bosses want to be nice to workers.  Employers believe, and rightly so, that it is their job to make money.  The challenge facing advocates for fair family/work policies is to provide evidence that these policies are money makers; they can boost the bottom line over the long term.  It's not as tough a sale as one might think.

Workplace flexibility can be a strategic business tool for managing today's workforce, rather than an expensive new benefit.  The benefits most often accrue to both employees and employers because the most competitive commodity for any business today is not how many hours are worked, but how much skill and knowledge each worker brings to the task.  Evidence has accumulated that the ability to attract and retain talent increases profits and reduces costs thereby, increasing shareholder confidence.

Savings can be substantial. James Wall, recently retired vice president for diversity and human resources at Deloitte, became alarmed when the company's investment in recruiting and training women evaporated because of the leaky pipeline. Looking at a list of 100 candidates for partnership he found only seven women. After implementing a multi-year program to change the culture about family/work policies, the number of women eligible for partnership rose to 41.  He told me:  "The cost of turnover in a knowledge-intensive business is somewhere between three and five times the salary of the person at the point they leave." He estimated that a one percent drop in turnover would result in a $1 million reduction in costs. "If you dropped it five percent, you were talking real money. When we ran these calculations to our partners who were serious doubters and even they said, maybe I need to pay closer attention, there's something there."

What is true for Deloitte's highly skilled workforce is also be true for many entry-level employees when employers find that without further investment in training, these workers lack the skills to do rudimentary work.  A skilled worker, regardless of the job description, remains a treasure.

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If the benefits of workplace flexibility options have already been proven, why aren't more businesses providing them? Partly, it's a mindset. For one thing, we are stuck in a sentimental Norman Rockwell Saturday Evening Post portrait of the American family which portrays father walking out the door, briefcase in hand, while mother, wearing a pinafore, waves good-bye from the doorway, with one perfect child at either side.  That's the way it was, and that's the way work remains, with the assumption that there is one breadwinner taking care of the family. He can work long hours, not worry about the home front, because mother is there to take care of the children and Grandma and bake apple pie.

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