Flexible Working Arrangements

September 18th 2018

by Carolee Colter

With unemployment reaching historic lows, people have a lot of choice in where they go to work. A lot of my clients in the natural foods industry are telling me they can’t find applicants to fill jobs, and the employee surveys I conduct reflect a lot of complaints about the impacts of understaffing and high turnover.

Staff retention is becoming a hotter issue all the time. To explore one strategy to retain staff—flexible work arrangements—I turned to Joanne Laracy of Grass Valley, California, former HR Manager at BriarPatch Co-op and now a human resources consultant.

CC: I found this definition from the Canadian government: “Flexible work arrangements allow employees to alter, on a temporary or permanent basis, their work schedule, the number of hours they work or the location where they do their work, or to take leave from work to meet responsibilities outside of work.” Which employees in particular can benefit from flexible work arrangements?

JL: You can support parents returning to work after taking time off to be with their children, people who are caregiving for elderly relatives or young children, and anyone striving for work/life balance. Millennials in particular have expressed a strong desire for work/life balance, though it’s good for all generations. The main reason for employers to make these kinds of arrangements is retention. When employees have a good workplace experience, they can contribute their best while they’re working. Flexible workplace arrangements promote diversity and inclusion and have a positive impact on workplace culture and morale.

CC: Could you give me some examples of flexible work arrangements?

JL: One is a compressed workweek where people work the same amount of hours but in fewer days, giving them more days off. Another is flexible scheduling, allowing different start times and end times from the standard schedule. For example, someone could work 12 to 8 pm instead of 9 to 5. Then there’s telecommuting, working from a remote site.

CC: What types of jobs lend themselves best to telecommuting?

JL: Some departments may not be suited to flexible working arrangements. Those departments that are include marketing, IT, finance, and the strategic aspects of HR, the parts where you don’t need to be face-to-face with others. There’s hard data to show that this works well for staff engagement and retention.

CC: What does it take to make telecommuting effective, for those jobs where it’s possible?

JL: For telecommuting to work, the employer needs to trust those employees and have good systems, such as telework agreements, in place to support them. Some remote work happens informally anyway. It would be good to make it more formal by putting policies and procedures in place and provide the right technology tools to support it.

CC: What are some other forms of flexible work arrangements?

JL: Job-sharing is actually a common practice in Australia. It’s particularly good for supporting parents who are re-entering the workforce. Sometimes I encounter fearfulness from employers that allowing job-sharing will result in having too many employees, higher payroll and paying more in benefits. But if it promotes higher engagement and retention, job-sharing is worth the price; the return on investment is recognized.

And then there’s phased retirement. You can support people leaving gradually, turning over some duties to others, possibly through job-sharing. You can bring on a successor who can train with the retiring employee, allowing time to pass on valuable institutional knowledge.

CC: Do you find some employees become jealous of coworkers who are permitted flexible work arrangements that aren’t available to the whole staff?

JL: People who haven’t gone through the experience of caring for children, the ill or elderly while working might not understand. You need to frame these arrangements as a benefit to the whole business. You need to use positive communication to ensure that no one feels they are losing out. No one knows whether some day they will need the same flexibility. No one knows if two years from now a loved one will have cancer and need daily care.

CC: I can see the challenge for employers in implementing flexible work arrangements is that it takes being proactive when they are already feeling overwhelmed contending with day-to-day reality.

JL: It takes planning, energy and thoughtfulness to be proactive, to be an innovative employer that provides flexible work arrangements. Sometimes it helps to have an outside perspective in organizing the work in new ways. But consider the benefits in recruitment and retention.

CC: I’ll close with this quote from the Canadian Minister of Employment, Workforce Development and Labour:

“For employees, [flex work] offers a way to better manage the often competing demands of paid work and their family and other personal responsibilities outside of work. For employers, flex work helps foster productivity as well as inclusive and supportive work environments that attract and retain needed talent.”

Carolee Colter has been consulting for co-ops and independents in the natural foods industry for over 30 years. She’s been leading workshops at Provender for most of those years. As the leader of the HR Team of CDS Consulting Co-op, she conducts employee surveys, supports co-op boards in hiring and compensating their general managers, and helps employers with job descriptions, pay scales and personnel policies. With Mark Mulcahy and Allen Seidner, for the past 18 years she’s co-led Rising Stars leadership seminars specifically for the natural industry.