The 10 Keys to Building the Flexible Workplace of the Future

Letting employees manage their own time can be good for a company's bottom line. Here's how one firm did it.

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In a follow-up reflection on the overwhelming response to her article "Why Women Still Can't Have It All," Anne-Marie Slaughter wisely noted that we need a new framework for work and life.

She's right. We do need a new model that moves beyond the outdated limits of "balance" and "having it all." This approach would acknowledge the radical transformation that's taken place at work and in our lives over the past two decades, offer greater flexibility and creativity to manage our responsibilities on and off the job, and deal with the lack of child care, eldercare, and paid family leave.

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The good news is that a new, flexible work/life framework already exists in a growing number of organizations. In fact, it's an open secret waiting to be scaled. But the challenge is how to get more organizations to try.

For the past six years, my company has worked with BDO USA, a professional services firm with 40 offices and 2500 employees across the U.S., to create and implement their award-winning work+life flexibility strategy, BDO Flex. The success of this program shows how a new approach to work and life can be tailored to the needs of a business and its people. It also shows how to avoid the common mistakes that turn well-intentioned policies into feel-good window dressing.

Here are 10 ways to avoid the common traps and adopt a new, more flexible framework:

Make the goal work+life "fit," not balance. One of the first steps in the BDO Flex process was to update the language. How do you describe what individuals want to achieve with flexibility so that it reflects the realities of a professional services firm with international clients and periods every year when the workload increases? Having a consistent "balance" may be impossible, but you could manage your unique work+life fit in a way that met your needs and the needs of the firm.

Recognize that work+life fit is an issue for everyone, not just women and parents. Initially, the perception of BDO USA senior leadership was that the firm needed greater work+life flexibility primarily to attract and retain women. This is the belief in many organizations. However, when an internal survey found that the men and the single people at the firm were having more trouble managing their work and life than the women and those who were married, they quickly reset the focus of BDO Flex. Everyone needed the flexibility to manage their work+life fit.

Base work+life flexibility on an employee-employer partnership. A one-size-fits-all policy or program administered unilaterally from the top-down by a manager or HR will have limited success. From the beginning, it was clear that for BDO Flex to succeed, leaders, managers, employees and HR would all play a role in an active partnership that created flexible work solutions based on the unique needs of a particular business line and its people.

Make the supporting business case as broad as possible: In too many companies, the "why" supporting greater work+life flexibility is a one-legged stool: attract and retain talent, usually women. That was the initial business case for BDO Flex as well. However, it quickly became clear that the same work flexibility (e.g., telecommuting, flexible hours, job flexibility, etc.) used to retain their people also helped the company do the following:

  • Stay open in bad weather
  • Extend administrative coverage for the professional staff by flexibly coordinating schedules without increasing overtime
  • Staff projects more effectively and with lower burnout
  • Reduce the amount of office space
  • Seed satellite offices in new markets with low overhead

As the business case broadened to include all of the benefits of a strategic, flexible approach to work and life, it made the case for BDO Flex as a business imperative even stronger.

In order to increase buy-in and understanding, create a vision of work+life flexibility that's shared. In many organizations, a small group of people will painstakingly write a flexible work policy in isolation. Then they will communicate it company-wide and wonder why no one uses it. It's because no one buys into or understands what the policy is trying to accomplish.

At BDO USA, over half the employees spent a number of months in various venues working together to develop a vision that articulated a clear "why" for BDO Flex. This vision continues to guide the strategy today.

Make the business line directly responsible for work+life flexibility, with HR serving as coach and facilitator. In most organizations, HR is the primary owner of work/life flexibility. What that does is separate flexibility from the day-to-day operation of the business. At BDO,, the leaders and people in business are responsible for BDO Flex. From the beginning, it was positioned as a way to help them work better and smarter.

Presented by

Cali Yost

Cali Williams Yost is the CEO and Founder of the Flex+Strategy Group / Work+Life Fit, Inc. Her second book about work+life fit, Tweak It: Small Changes, Big Impact, will be published in January.

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