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Not just a quick fix

For Tata Communications, 30 per cent of its 7,700 employee resides overseas while 77 per cent of its revenues are generated beyond Indian shores. About a third of its employees have a remote manager. In fact, the top leadership team, including its CEO, works from eight locations. “Most of the meetings take place virtually and we probably meet physically three or four times a year, as a team,” says Aadesh Goyal, global head, human resources, Tata Communications. The company has completed a large number of cross-functional projects in the last three years that involved people from different functions, levels, and locations.

For a company employing people from different geographies, demographics and sensibilities, it is crucial to offer flexibility to employees not just to motivate them but to empower them as well. “It is a natural progression in this ‘glocal’ world we’re living in and conduct business in,” adds Goyal. In other words, to meet the needs of an increasingly complex business environment across a diverse set of regions, flexibility at the workplace is not just important, but also unavoidable. It is no more a question of choice but is a necessity.

There are two ways to look at it really – first, flexibility as a business imperative or as a productivity enhancing tool, and second, as a talent retention tool. Many organisations view workplace flexibility as a strategic move to get the best out of their talent, keep employees engaged and at the same time attract and retain talent. “It is a good balance of both – a strategic move as well as an employee benefit. It is a benefit made available to the employees to ensure higher productivity, morale and interest,” says Dedeepya Ajith John, knowledge and research consultant, SHRM India. “Such a policy gives employees the liberty to execute a task according to their convenience of place and method but without compromising on time and quality.”

So how does the concept of flexibility really work? And how can companies ensure it is a win-win for both the employer and the employee?

When is it useful?
Researchers and HR professionals say there will never be a one-size-fits-all plan for flexibility and companies need to figure out their own plans based on resources on hand.

Introducing the culture of flexibility in PWC India wasn’t that easy for Mark Driscoll, who joined the India team as leader, human capital, in 2011. Driscoll found around 80 per cent of its employees belong to the Millennial Generation (or Generation Y, people whose birth years range from the early 1980s to the early 2000s). Before the flexibility policy was announced, the senior level management teams were sensitised about the need for the policy. It had to communicate that flexibility is not about working less, but working differently.

Today of its 10,000 employees, more than 60 work on a part-time basis. The company has under 20 per cent attrition rate, which, according to Driscoll, is much lower than the industry average. Around 25 per cent of employees have availed of the flexibility option at some point in 2014. The company has also done away with the attendance system. “If you give them such options, then employees also take the onus of where, when and how to work within the culture and stay productive,” adds Driscoll, who has completed his tenure at PWC India in January this year.

In organisations such as Quintiles India, where 50 per cent of the workforce comprises women, offering flexibility is a pre-requisite of sorts. The company has several doctors across various streams of medicine on its rolls, who have the flexibility to continue their professional practice, while being engaged in a career at Quintiles. This is a win-win for both as the exposure of these practitioners to the latest research enhances their professional practice, while their experience adds value to the work they do at Quintiles. The firm claims to have an employee referral rate of over 30 per cent. Medical professionals are either full-time employees who practice after office hours and are paid like regular employees or as part-time consultants, who are paid based on the number of hours they put in every week.

When flexible working is commonly associated with the services sector, some manufacturing companies have systems and processes in place to enable employees to work with a flexible work schedule. For instance, automobile and farm equipment sectors at Mahindra & Mahindra offer many options under the work-life integration policy crafted in 2012 wherein employees can avail of flexi-timing, work from home choices, take sabbaticals or even have career flexibility. For a manufacturing company which survives on continuous process-led productivity it was a challenge to introduce a policy around flexibility. “In many ways we wanted to demonstrate that within this industry, we could give choice. We had to do a lot of fine balancing and in some instances, plant locations had to communicate clearly to employees where it was not feasible,” says Rajeshwar Tripathi, chief people officer, automotive & farm equipment sectors at Mahindra & Mahindra. Around 50 per cent of its employees have availed of the flexi-time option. The company also offers sabbatical of up to six months where the employee is entitled to 50 per cent pay but on the condition that the employee will not take up any alternative employment during this period.

How does it work?
If a flexible-work policy has to work, it has to be based on two pillars. First, there has to be a clear and transparent policy established in the system so that those who do not avail of the option do not feel shortchanged. Second- and this flows from the first – there has to be clear and appropriate communication within the organisation so that everyone knows who it applies to and what it entails. “Introducing policies and making an effort to publicise and internalise those policies within the system gives people less leeway to misuse the policy,” says John of SHRM India.

Most companies offer coaching and guidance at the manager level to foster an ‘inclusive culture’. “We try to ensure that employees working remotely are made to feel part of the team through their participation in team meetings, conference calls, town-halls, training programmes and so on,” says Intikhab Wani, vice-president & HR head, Quintiles India & Sri Lanka. The company also creates opportunities for employees working remotely to visit the closest corporate office so that they can meet and network face to face with their colleagues.

Flexibility matters
What goes into it

  • Flexibility at the workplace primarily constitutes three elements – flexible hours (start and finish time, breaks, compressed weeks); flexible pattern (part-time work, shifts/job sharing) and flexible location (working from home/other locations or telecommuting)
     
  • Companies are also looking at career flexibility, which addresses career development at various stages like career customising, work in retirement
     
  • They can also offer phased retirement, where employees reduce the schedule and/or responsibilities prior to full retirement
     
  • There can be flexible time-offs or arrangements for employees for higher studies, leave during examination time, to attend classes for certain certifications and trainings
     
  • That apart sabbatical policy, adoption policy and maternity/paternity leave are common in organisations

How HR can drive flexibility

  • Showing how workplace flexibility can engage and reward employees while also improving business outcomes
     
  • Supporting workplace flexibility not just as a series of specific programmes or policies, but also as a strategic business decision
     
  • Educating and training employees, teams and managers on how to implement flexible work arrangements to improve job performance
     
  • Conducting needs assessments to select and adapt flexibility policies that best fit business needs
     
  • Serving as consultants and fine-tuning policies to ensure effective implementation
     
  • Identifying and tracking workforce metrics related to the effective use of flexibility
     
  • Ensuring systematic adherence to regulations governing leaves, comp time and work scheduling across locations
     
  • Overseeing the pilot of a workplace flexibility initiative and collecting feedback and modifying as needed

Source: Leveraging Workplace Flexibility for Engagement and Productivity Report 2014, Society for Human Resource Management Foundation

In some organisations, however, flexibility is not a standard practice; rather it is an informal arrangement based on need and subject to manager approvals. “There is no intention to create a policy or process around flexibility. Ideally, it should be a defined process where employers create a culture of trust,” says Simran Arora, an independent HR consultant.

The job profile or the nature of work plays a pivotal role in designing the guidelines but companies need to track/measure performance and use at the same time. Quintiles provide employees with the necessary technology infrastructure plus an allowance to set up their home office. On its part, HCL formalised the policy in 2010, which was enforced to acknowledge the lifecycle demands of the workforce. Its flexibility guidelines clearly establish the eligibility; it also has a system in place to process requests based on merit.

Think about it: Incorporating some degree of flexibility is not difficult; what is slightly complex is ensuring employees deliver on their key result areas. As companies incorporate technology solutions to manage coaching, learning and teaming on the go, they are also helping in putting the basic infrastructure in place to enable employees to be productive and to enable managers to measure their productivity. From connectivity devices like mobile phones, data cards and web-cam enabled laptops to applications like webex, lync chats, employees who work flexi time are as efficient as any employee working from an office location.

In fact, there is a software to measure not only the amount of time put in their jobs by flexible workers but also audit the quality of work. Take Sapience, a productivity audit tool, where delivery becomes more predictable and additional bandwidth becomes available for innovation. The tool works in the background of a computer system and audits the time used on various software allowing managers to split the computer time for each team member between work and personal activity. “With Sapience, companies are better placed to offer flexibility where policy such as work from home could be made effective because of the visibility of the employees’ performance,” says Shirish Deodhar, CEO and co-founder, Sapience Analytics.

Having a system in place around flexibility can go a long way to ensure not just wellness and a work-life balance for employees but also prove cost-effective in retaining and attracting the right talent.

EXPERT TAKE

CASSIDY SOLIS

5 things to remember while implementing ‘workflex’

  1. Position workflex as a business strategy: Identify your organisation’s strategic priorities and business goals and accordingly design workflex initiatives. Focus on how business, and not just employees, will benefit from workflex
     
  2. Customise your programme: Talk with your employees about what workflex initiatives might work best. Use their feedback to design a programme that will produce desired business results and satisfy the needs of employees
     
  3. Incorporate change management strategies: Workflex is a different way of working and requires changes in individual mindsets and in the culture of your organisation. Involve key stakeholders, offer manager and employee training, and build communication strategies to facilitate a smooth implementation process
     
  4. Track metrics: Establish metrics that you will use to evaluate the effectiveness of your workflex initiatives. Tracking metrics will help you understand the effectiveness of your initiative, help you make course corrections if needed, and help build support among management and employee
     
  5. Continue to innovate: Ensure that workflex contributes to your organisation’s success year after year by continuing to innovate new ways that workflex can help achieve your organisation’s strategic priorities

CASSIDY SOLIS workplace flexibility programme specialist, SHRM

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