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What 30 years of flexibility has taught me about successful hybrid workplaces

The conversations around flexible workplaces continue. The threat of conflict between employers and employees is escalating. And as the pandemic shapes a new way of working, even as employees begin to return to offices, understanding how to provide your employees the work situation they want is key.

It’s time to start changing our thinking around the 40-hour, 9-to-5 work week. The pandemic has taught us that the remote model is scalable and applicable in ways traditional employers never imagined.

Nowhere has the 9-to-5 workplace been more present than in the accounting profession. Long hours in the office or on-site at a client’s business have been the norm. But for 30 years, our firm has operated -- and grown and thrived -- under a flexible work model that truly works for all.

Perhaps the most pragmatic reason to offer flexibility is for talent. Our model helps us attract and retain the best talent. Without the best talent, companies cannot grow and scale successfully. That has never been more apparent than today, when the market for talent is on fire, and employees have options like never before.

People need to get up every day and be excited about working for your company. What are you doing to make that the case? Ask yourself this threshold question: “Does my team have the work arrangement they need to show up and give my company their best?”

If the answer is not a definitive yes, ask them why, and give them a safe space to answer. Employees need to ask for what they need. Your role is not to solve their home issues or to create happiness, it’s to listen and understand how you can best integrate your work into their lives.

Practice your active listening. Turn off your phone, computer and all devices. Have paper and a pen in front of you to take short notes and demonstrate that the team member has your total attention. Consider taking the meeting off-site.

Your role is to ask and then ask again. Use probing questions like “Tell me more about that” or “What does that look like?” Do whatever you can to keep the employee talking. Nod, look them in the eye, and show them you’re engaged and willing to listen.

Then, summarize what you heard, and tell them you need to consider what’s been said and determine how to best proceed. Remember, you don’t have to say yes to everything. Some items on their wish list may be deal-breakers, and you can work with your employee to negotiate what does and doesn’t work for the company.

Remember that the goal is a win-win and that creating loyalty will deliver productivity and better performance. Employees will show up engaged and ready to contribute their best.

The Kaiser model

Kaiser Consulting started down this road three decades ago -- long before flexible workplaces were "cool." Our method of team management starts with a process called Optimum Scheduling. We use it to ask our employees: “What is the best schedule that would fit YOUR LIFE.” And as you can imagine, each person answers this question differently. People are each unique, and they have different priorities and challenges in their own lives.

How we leverage our Optimum Scheduling process to manage our workload is key to our success. If you manage a team, it may provide ideas on some new ways to manage your employees. Likewise, if you are an employee, it may give some new ways to frame how you might want your return to work to look.

How does Optimum Scheduling work?

Can people really work a schedule of their choosing? Yes, they can. When we bring a new team member on board, they are hired as hourly employees for an initial project that fits their desired skill set and availability. At that time, we also have them “project out” for 52 weeks how much they want to work each week.

Each team member has their own individual considerations. Some only want to work during the school year. Some want to reduce hours in the summer. Some work certain days of the week to accommodate personal commitments like child care. Others want months off for extended travel or want to work less when they travel.

Boundaries do matter for both the company and employee, and each will be different depending on the scale and scope of the business. Our only requirement it that our minimum commitment for work is 24 hours per week. This is critical for our business, because we do large corporate projects that can be several hundred hours of time. We simply can’t get project traction on less than 24 hours per week. Most of our employees work 24 to 35 hours per week.

For clarity and to manage expectations, we also ask our team members to provide their maximum hours of work. This is the number of hours they would feel comfortable working toward the end of a project, near a deadline or for a portion of the year when demand is highest. This provides cushion when a project has issues or there is more work than originally planned. When we scope a project, our clients and team are operating under the “best-case scenario,” and we often find these projections are overly optimistic.

Each hourly employee gets benefits such as 401(k) programs (we will contribute $250,000 in 2021) and training allowances. Employees desiring medical benefits must work an average of 30 hours per week (again, the team member’s choice as to the level worked).

Once we’ve set these parameters, it then is our management team’s job to fill each schedule so that people can work their optimum hours. We decide who gets assigned to client work using a process where we review for technical skill set, “soft” skill set, hours available, schedule fit with other assigned work and the length of the commute.

It’s important to understand that we do not just assign the work and move on. Managers carefully monitor the hours each person works every week in our weekly management meeting.

If a team member works more than five hours over their optimum hours for more than two weeks, they get a call from a director of client service to find out what is happening. Because our commitment to our team is to maintain their optimal schedule, this continuous evaluation is essential.

We are obligated to be open to their feedback. Sometimes they say, "it is OK, this job is virtual and/or is a short commute; all is well." But sometimes they say it is not OK. Perhaps they have uncovered problems in the work, or the work is more difficult or extensive than was originally projected.

In that case, one of our directors of client service will contact the client to understand the situation. There are many ways to address it. We might add a second person to the project. We could extend the project deadline to slow the pace. We remind our clients of our employee’s hourly limits. If clients are not accommodating and aligned, we may sever the relationship. Maintaining our optimal schedule commitment -- and our culture -- are the priority.

It’s worked for us for 30 years, and it can work for others. Above all, remember this: Talent will go where they fit. If you’re not willing to try, they will move on. Without question, the best talent in the market can pick and choose their roles.

For companies considering flexible models, Optimum Scheduling may be the right answer. And it starts with changing your mindset from “That isn’t going to work” to “How can we make it work?”

Be open to new arrangements. Consider the value of flexing against hiring. If it doesn’t work, adjust. After all, optimum scheduling is not just made to fit the employee -- it’s made to fit the business. Finding the win-win happens when both sides are aligned and agree on the terms of the relationship.

 

Lori Kaiser is a CEO, corporate leader, visionary and business strategist with a proven track record in assessing risk and creating solutions for Fortune 500 C-level executives and boards. As CEO of Kaiser Consulting, Kaiser provides clients’ value-based services that allow organizations to navigate transitions and successfully execute critical projects. She is considered a trusted adviser to executive management on issues of risk identification and mitigation, mergers, acquisitions, and integrations. Kaiser founded and has led the firm to nearly 30 years of successive revenue growth, achieving multimillion-dollar revenues. She established and continues to direct growth in long-term client relationships by delivering accomplished financial, technical, and project management with staffing consistency on client engagements. Kaiser meets all the criteria and currently functions as an SEC Audit Committee Financial Expert.

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