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The Importance of Being Flexible

By: Lisa D'Annolfo Levey , Catalyst
Source: Executive Update
Feature Article
Published: September 2002

According to Lisa D'Annolfo Levey and Dr. Meryle Mahrer Kaplan, Directors of Advisory Services at Catalyst, top companies embrace rather than shun flexibility as an organizational trait.  In this Executive Update feature article, they discuss how companies can leverage the trust and respect already present in their credos to create flexible, efficient and ultimately successful organizations.


Many forces - changing families, changing values, changing technology - push us to work in new, more flexible ways. Despite the presence of these forces, many leaders struggle with how to provide flexibility that works for individuals and work teams, and contributes to the overall effectiveness of the organization.

Undoubtedly, your organization already has employees working in a variety of ways. Some of your staff members probably get in early to get a jump on the day, or work at home for uninterrupted writing and thought time, or work at home before and after traveling, or perhaps leave work to go to the gym or to do an errand in the middle of the day. You likely have employees using flexibility to avoid long commutes, care for family members, pursue avocations, go to school, or phase into retirement among many other reasons.

How can your association move beyond a collection of individual arrangements? How can you harness the power of flexibility so that it works for the organization as well as for individual employees?

The Old Scenario: Please Don't Ask Now!
You've just gotten back to your office after a lengthy meeting discussing the launch of a new package of services for association members. You've barely sat down when three talented employees ask for accommodations - one wants time off for school, another wishes to work at home to participate in more family events, a third is looking for a change in work hours to lead a community-charity campaign. You're worried about adding services and coverage hours. It feels as if your staff doesn't understand the needs of the organization. You are worried about saying yes because doing so might open yourself up to more requests and to the resentment of other, now overloaded employees. You can't imagine how you can possibly accommodate all these scheduling needs at this high-pressure time.

The New Scenario:  Flexibility Leadership
Requests for flexibility are often thought of as a problem - something that can only make meeting the goals of the organization more difficult. In fact, flexibility can be a powerful and often underutilized tool for leaders. Requests for flexibility can actually spark other ideas on how to better meet the needs of the organization and increase teamwork and employee effectiveness. A flexible work environment can be the difference between employees that feel energized and ready to go to bat for you and those that feel burned out, unsupported, and ready to walk out the door at the first chance they get.

Flexibility is about good management. The effective use of flexibility requires a foundation of trust and respect that may be lacking in some organizations. If you answered "yes" to more of the "flexibility-challenged" questions than the "flexibility champion" questions (see "Assessing your flexibility competency"), then your organization likely lacks this foundation, an issue that must be addressed by management for the organization to succeed. Once the foundation begins to firm into place, the organization can address flexibility. But it is important to note that flexibility requires good management. Flexibility shines the spotlight on leadership capabilities such as crystallizing and communicating priorities, setting the stage for thoughtfully executing plans, encouraging teamwork and coordination, and harnessing employee talents to drive results.

Flexibility is not about saying yes to all requests. It is about setting necessary parameters and encouraging employees to think about their work and personal needs. It is about employees proposing new solutions that enable them to get the job done. It is about keeping an open dialogue about how to work most effectively. Flexibility is not just about your response to employees with personal crises. It is about work-process planning and answering questions like: How will the work get done? What happens during overload times? How will communication and coordination with internal and external clients and colleagues be managed? What skills do the employees seeking flexibility need to implement this plan?

Leveraging Flexibility to Promote Effectiveness
Historically, organizations made adaptations in the typical work schedule to accommodate individual employees who deviated from the norm, often women with small children who were struggling with the intense demands of work and home.

Today, many organizations still perceive flexibility as an aberration. They have cultures that support the old way of working. That old way was designed around factory production shift scheduling. We still think about the "typical" workday and about rewarding people who work overtime. "Face time" still rules. Organizations tend to be biased in thinking that the current way in which work gets done is in fact optimal. The reality is that much activity that goes on in the name of work is far from efficient or effective. Those long hours don't always make sense - for people or for organizations. Some of the crises that fuel long hours and garner rewards can be avoided by better planning.

For leaders who want to establish flexibility in their organizations, it is first important to realize that flexible work arrangements are a partnership between individuals and their managers. The following tips can help managers create and support an effective flexibility:

  • Focus on results and monitor flexible work arrangements on a regular basis.
  • Assess the impact of flexible work arrangements on others - subordinates, colleagues, clients, and team members.
  • Be sure to examine and redefine the workload for employees on reduced schedules.
  • Treat the performance issues of employees on flexible work arrangements the same way you would for employees on traditional schedules.
  • Don't forget the development needs of employees on flexible work arrangements, particularly those on reduced schedules.
  • Realize that flexible work arrangements can and likely will be modified. They are a work-in-progress.

In the end, taking a flexible approach to work arrangements is likely to be a winning proposition for companies. It will help attract talent, build employee loyalty and commitment, and reduce absenteeism and lateness. More importantly, the results are likely to manifest themselves in an organization that is highly motivated to work well, work smart, and produce the best results possible.

The most effective use of flexibility flows from solving specific organizational problems and meeting specific organizational goals. Your goal is to use flexibility to help the organization evaluate work processes and priorities and to keep individuals, and the association as a whole, focused on where they can add the greatest value.

Assessing Your Flexibility Competency

The flexibility-challenged will answer yes to these questions

The flexibility champion will answer yes to these questions

Do you expect employees to follow the specifics of your way of working or to adhere to a single, uniform code? Do you encourage employees to develop their own work schedules based on their needs and productivity?
Does flexibility equal poor communication, resulting in work spinning out of control and missed priorities? Will employees be more likely to stay on and complete tasks if they have more freedom in how they work?
Do you think some of your employees would take advantage of flexibility and not work as hard? Are your employees professional and competent enough to do their jobs without much direct supervision?
Does flexibility have the potential to compromise quick action if face-to-face meetings on little notice are impossible? Are you and your staff able to leverage technology (conference calls, e-mail, instant messaging, etc.) to communicate effectively and quickly?
Do you sometimes or often note the early arrival or late departure of employees? Can you resist the urge to use long hours in performance evaluations and focus solely on results?
Are you annoyed with special work schedule requests? Do you approach special work schedule requests as opportunities?
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