Making the Business Case for a Workplace Flexibility Program

Father and daughter having funWorkplace flexibility has been taking a hit recently. After many years of advocating for flexible workplaces, some of the early champions of the practice are changing their tune. IBM has begun favoring a more collaborative, in-office approach, although the tech giant had been a champion of “anytime, anywhere work” for many years.

Yahoo made the decision to step away from flexible work arrangements under Marissa Mayer in 2013.

So, should an HR professional try to ford into the flex time waters if the tide is turning?

Absolutely, if it makes good business sense.

Analyzing the IBM and Yahoo examples, it may be that if a business is facing significant challenges, then the case for an all-hands-on-deck approach becomes more alluring. IBM changed its policy following repeated stagnant earnings reports, despite its history of promoting remote and flexible work arrangements. Yahoo, facing similar challenges, came to the same conclusion.

There continue to be a great number of benefits to telecommuting programs. Businesses shouldn’t fall into the trap of doing what a well-publicized minority of others are doing.

Encouraging Executive Involvement and Determining Business Needs

Implementing a successful work-at-home program requires the support of the executive team. The enthusiasm for the program needs to come from the top-down. Interestingly, the most enthusiastic supporters of such a program often are the most senior and the most junior in an organization: supervisors and middle managers may be lukewarm due to employee management and control concerns.

The first step in making a business case is to identify the business need, problem or opportunity that is being addressed. Giving careful thought to this first step – and playing devil’s advocate – will allow for a more evolved approach for implementation. Otherwise, the project will be a good idea that may be easily abandoned because it’s not clearly applicable to the organization’s needs.

The next step should be to develop a team to investigate the costs, benefits and challenges of the proposed initiative. Colleagues in Operations, IT, Finance and various departments that may be amenable to workplace flexibility options should be represented on the team. In addition, stakeholders or departments that may be against the idea of telework should also be involved: often, those are the parties most crucial to effective implementation, and should be involved at the earliest possible stage of the process.

Hiring a seasoned consultant to review the business as a whole may be an excellent investment (albeit a potentially costly one). Consultants working with clients implementing workplace flexibility programs may readily identify potential problems or costs related to remote work – a crucial step of making a credible business case.

Data Collection, Business Measures and Concerns

Because workplace flexibility options include flex-time, flex-place, job-sharing and alternative work schedules, to name a few, additional information may be helpful in determining which options would work best given the business needs of the organization.

Employee and supervisor surveys may be instrumental in tracking anticipation and satisfaction regarding work-at-home options. These surveys may also provide baseline information for comparison if/once the initiative is implemented. Focus groups or existing data from engagement surveys may also be instructive.

Information specific to employee or team performance may also yield important considerations when implementing a workplace flexibility program. If the business needs require collaboration, then perhaps a flex-time program with the availability of core worksite hours may be the best option, instead of a full-time telecommuting option for workers.

Given that telecommuting may pose some issues for supervisors, including challenges related to managing a remote team, honest appraisals of the pros and cons of remote working are imperative to determining the feasibility and advisability of a workplace flexibility program.

Controls on employee responsibility with respect to flexible options (e.g., signing a work-from-home pledge, recurring communications or checking in requirements) as well as wage-and-hour concerns (tracking of rest and meal breaks for nonexempt employees) must be explored.

A detailed action plan should be drafted to address all contingencies.

Quantify the Benefits

The benefits of the workplace flexibility program should be quantified as accurately, and conservatively, as possible.

Tangible Benefits

Quantifying tangible benefits can be a straightforward matter if involving a number of experts, such as consultants, or colleagues that are knowledgeable of the benefits derived from specific measures.

For example, gauging the impact on employee productivity may be accomplished by measuring tangible work product. For example, in the insurance industry, the number of claims processed within a certain time period (with attendant monetary values) could be used as a measure for productivity.

Another positive effect may include a reduction in real estate costs for the business, and any attendant savings (e.g., related office expenses). In today’s business climate, many companies that own large work sites are asking themselves if they need to be in the real estate business in addition to their core businesses. After determining how much real estate is optimal, a baseline cost should be calculated. Any reduction in these costs should be included in the plan, but timetables for achieving these returns should be realistic.

Any reduction in employee turnover that can be attributed to the workplace flexibility program should also be quantified and included. However, the determination of this figure should be thoughtfully done. For example, the benefit should be segregated from other initiatives that may have a similar effect on employee turnover (e.g., sexual harassment prevention training).

Intangible Benefits

Stressors are a part of any daily commute. Weather, traffic and delays on public transportation may add unnecessarily to the stress of a big meeting. Working from home could resolve these issues.

But how can one quantify the benefits of a “less stressful workplace”? It’s a difficult question to answer. And yet listing the intangible benefits on an ROI analysis can help determine a “go or no-go” decision.

Other intangible benefits derived from the program’s implementation may be:

  • Increased engagement; and
  • Positive impact on the environment.

In making a business case, all of these intangible benefits (including reaping the benefits of increased reputation as an environmentally conscious concern in marketing campaigns, for example) should be communicated effectively.

Costs of the Program

The nature and range of implementation costs of the program should be quantified in a similarly conservative manner to that of the program’s projected benefits.

Workplace flexibility programs may require a sizable initial investment of IT upgrades, as well as continuing IT support throughout implementation. Outfitting home offices (availability of printers, teleconferencing options and other office supplies) carry costs as well – although such costs may be significantly less than those for a traditional office space.

If using a consultant, the costs may be significant depending on the consultant’s tasks:

  • Conducting surveys;
  • Forecasting return on investment; or
  • Facilitating focus groups or training sessions.

Of course, the consultant’s expertise and executives’ confidence in results may be well worth the expense.

Salaries and benefits for time spent on administration, coordination and implementation of the program should be quantified accordingly.

Measure the ROI

Measuring the ROI of a workplace flexibility program will yield the hard data on which conservative business decisions can be based. Once costs and benefits have been tallied, an ROI should be forecast. The stark presentation of net costs, quantified benefits and the forecasted return on investment can make or break a business case for a project.

Make the Business Case

The final step is to communicate the reasons why a workplace flexibility program makes sound business sense for the organization. When presenting the business case of a program to stakeholders, make sure to:

  • Identify the business problem, need or opportunity being addressed by the workplace flexibility program;
  • Describe relevant iterations of the program that were considered and reasons why those particular options were selected or rejected (for example, opting for flexible scheduling over telecommuting; rejecting job-sharing due to concerns regarding continuity of customer communications);
  • List benefits of addressing the business problem, need or opportunity;
  • Describe comparable workplace flexibility programs implemented by competitors or industry leaders and their business results, if available;
  • Address investment and timeline needed to implement the workplace flexibility program;
  • Share the ROI analysis for implementing the workplace flexibility program;
  • List actions to be taken subsequent to introducing the program to ensure the initiative is implemented as planned. Workplace flexibility programs can be one of the thorniest in this respect, because effective employee management, employee accountability and cost containment are crucial to the program’s success;
  • Plan for measurement of the actual business result generated by the HR initiative and timeline for the measurement; and
  • Plan for reporting to the decision makers the business results of the HR initiative.

Measuring and Communicating Business Success

Speaking at the recent EEOC TAPS New York Seminar in June, Caryn Parlavecchio, Vice President & Head, Human Resources, at Novartis Pharmaceuticals Corporation, shared how her organization is currently celebrating the fifth anniversary of a successful flexible workplace program, which includes flex time, flex place and flex schedules.

Measuring the successes of these programs, and trumpeting long-term wins can be a central part of an organization’s marketing efforts, making it an employer of choice.

As for examples of potential intangible, but important, benefits of these workplace flexibility programs, Parlavecchio mentioned that Novartis has been ranked by Diversity Inc. as #2 in Diversity and Inclusion – a big win for the employer and its employees alike.

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