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 We do need a new model that moves beyond the outdated limits of "balance" and "having it all."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.

To reinforce that message, the firm's CEO and general counsel were the lead BDO Flex champions. A new, stand-alone strategy group was set up to oversee the day-to-day implementation of BDO Flex and related initiatives. And a diverse task force drawn from all levels of the business supported the entire effort. Each step of the way, HR played the important role of coach, facilitator, supporter, and change agent, but not owner.

Have leaders and supervisors encourage conversations, but not determine the solutions. BDO Flex is an ongoing dialogue between leaders, supervisors and employees. To ensure consistency, everyone follows the same three process-based, conversation protocols:

  • Day-to-day, informal work flexibility, or small, periodic shifts in how, when or where work is done.
  • Formal work+life flexibility plans that officially change the way an employee will work
  • Flexibility to solve a business challenge. For example, "How can we be more flexible with our schedules to service a new client with operations in China and not burn out the team?"

Focus on both informal flexibility to manage everyday work+life fit, and formal flex work plans to manage bigger transitions. Even though it's what most people want most of the time, informal, day-to-day work+life flexibility is frequently overlooked and ignored in favor of formal flexible work arrangements.

Allowing people to make small, defined shifts in how, when, and where they worked to manage the everyday realities of life was one of the most important parts of the BDO Flex strategy. Meet the plumber, go to the gym, see the dentist, or attend your child's soccer game. Just follow the guidelines, make up the time, communicate with your team and get your work done.

Big life transitions happen. Children are born, aging parents get sick, people want to go back to school, and partners relocate. One size-fits-all formal flexible work arrangement polices don't support the thoughtful planning and discussion that has to happen for a formal change in the way someone works to succeed.

At BDO USA, there's a clear process to help people draft and propose formal flex plans tailored to their unique job and personal needs (based on the step-by-step "how-to" found in my book, Work+Life: Finding the Fit That's Right for You). The reason for the request doesn't matter and isn't required. The focus is solely on how the work will get done. Workable plans are approved for a three month trial period, and reviewed periodically thereafter to make sure they're still working for everyone. Adjustments are made accordingly.

Measure the results you want to achieve. Historically, most organizations don't do a good job measuring the impact of existing work/life programs and policies. And work/life issues aren't usually a meaningful part of an annual pulse survey, which make it difficult to identify challenges that aren't being addressed.

BDO USA looks to a variety of metrics to gauge the success of BDO Flex. For example, a survey conducted in January 2009, six months after the national launch of the BDO Flex strategy, measure the impact on people and the business.

Here is the percentage of respondents who said the BDO Flex strategy had a positive impact in each of the following areas:

  • 72%: Ability to manage my work+life fit as a BDO employee in a way that meets my needs and the needs of the business.
  • 72%: Willingness to recommend BDO to others
  • 71%: Desire to stay at BDO
  • 70%: Job satisfaction
  • 63%: Motivation
  • 62%: Productivity--working smarter and better

And this is how respondents saw the strategy's positive impact on the firm:

  • 83%: Ability to recruit talent
  • 82%: Ability to retain talent
  • 74%: Ability to compete in a global workplace
  • 66%: Overall productivity
  • 65%: Ability to provide quality client service
  • 65%: Ability to develop talent
  • 65%: Ability to flexible manage resources (e.g. real estate, matching talent to business cycles, office resource sharing, etc.)

Additionally, every year since 2010, the prestigious Alfred P. Sloan Award for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility has provided outside, independent confirmation of employee satisfaction with BDO Flex.

Keep updating, innovating your work+life flexibility strategy. Too often, organizations will implement a work/life flexibility policy or program, check the box "done" and then move on to something else. At BDO USA, BDO Flex is an ongoing work in progress that's evaluated and improved as business realities change and issues are identified. Just as work and life continue to transform, so must any work+life framework like BDO Flex.

Anne-Marie Slaughter is correct. We do need a new work+life framework. This new model would offer real, meaningful work, life, and career flexibility to people, but it would also benefit the business broadly. It shouldn't be window-dressing that sounds impressive on paper but in reality has little impact. It should be part of the business strategy. The good news is that a growing number of organizations like BDO USA are building new, tailored frameworks. One hopes that more will learn from their efforts and join in.