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From Global Conference: The flexible workforce

3 min read


I attended the recent 2012 Milken Institute Global Conference, which included a session focused on workforce issues across demographics, industries and specific companies. One issue highlighted early was the concept of flexibility — in hours, days, roles and career arcs — and how, when done right, company policies can help employees without sacrificing productivity.

Flexibility in the workforce is not a new concept, but its definition and applications are widening and misconceptions are still being overcome, said Carol Evans of Working Mother Media during the “Managing Talent and Building a Unified Workforce” session.

This concept is about which hours and days people work, but it’s much more than that, Evans explained. It’s an employee-driven mindset, not something conceived, decided and executed from the C-suite. Two of her other points stood out: Many women value flexibility to the point that they would choose an increase in that work-life quality over a raise, and that men, especially in the younger generation, will be as much a beneficiary of this workplace evolution as women.

What is this concept that is worth more than money to some people, and why should companies be involved? Those two questions are intertwined, Evans said: “Workforce issues are at the very core and heart” of companies, because without a strong, engaged workforce, companies can’t succeed. Her company collects data to help companies analyze their workforce engagement and find ways to address deficiencies — not just for working moms, she emphasized, but for all employees. Then, perhaps most important, it publicly ranks them.

“You have to not just have a program in place, but we also measure you on access to the program … and then we measure you on usage of each program,” she says. Companies that create a program but never roll it out, or have only an executive-level offering, will be penalized in Working Mother Media’s rankings. The competitive nature of these rankings was originally designed to drive male-led companies to outdo each other, she says.

These are some of the best practices that the company has come up with:

  • Flexibility: At its broadest, this means “flex your day, your week, your year and your career.” Not necessarily working 9 to 5 or at the corporate office, or a five-day week. This could mean job-sharing, or scaling hours up or down depending on the time of year. The last point is the evolution of flexibility, she said: “You can say to your boss … ‘I am really under a lot of pressure right now, I’m handling the job beautifully, I’m really good at what I do. But I’m just asking you, don’t promote me for the next 18 months, but I’m gonna come back to you in 18 months and say, I’m ready.’ “
  • Mentoring and sponsorship: A mentor directly gives advice and helps the mentee address career and life issues now and looking ahead. A sponsor goes around to other people in the workplace and talks up who’s being sponsored. “The old boys’ network seems to do this as a matter of breathing,” and women need to develop their own ways of doing this, Evans said.
  • Creating managers: “Nothing pushes an employee away from a company faster than a bad boss.” Thankfully, managers can be trained and coached to overcome their issues, recognize work-life issues and support their employees.