Making Work 'Work'

Creating work environments that promote employee flexibility can sometimes seem like a dream rather than an achievable goal. The Families and Work Institute and Society for Human Resource Management are spotlighting companies that have made those workplaces a reality through a national contest, the Alfred P. Sloan Awards for Excellence in Workplace Effectiveness and Flexibility, released through the society's "When Work Works" program. Here, Ellen Galinsky, president of the Families and Work Institute, talks about what companies around the country are trying, what works and what doesn't.

Monday, August 19, 2013
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HRE: First, tell us about the awards and what it means to be a Sloan Award winner.

EG: The purpose of the grant from the Sloan Foundation was to be able to translate research into action. Since 1992, the Families and Work Institute has done a study of the U.S. workforce, and, since 1998, a national representative study of employers. So we had a lot of research about what works: 600 data points from 3,500 people.

We had been looking through our research and others' research about aspects of people's jobs that are the most predictive of things that employers would care about − whether employees are engaged, whether they want to remain with the company, physical health and mental health, and conflict they face with family and work life (Galinsky doesn't use the term 'work/life balance' because it implies a zero-sum game). So we found there are six ingredients that make the biggest difference in making what we call an effective and flexible workplace:

*           Having flexibility, work/life fit. It's really the culture of an organization and how your supervisor treats you.

*           Whether or not you have job autonomy.

*           Having a supervisor who supports you in being successful in your job.

*           Job challenge and learning opportunities.

*           Whether there's a culture of respect and trust.

*           Economic security.

The scoring for these companies is very rigorous, and two-thirds of the winning score is based on the employees.

It isn't an award just about flexibility. It includes all of those six factors. [Winners will be featured in the "2014 Guide to Bold New Ideas for Making Work Work," published by both organizations.] 

HRE: What are some ideas companies are trying that surprised you?

EG: I think some of the trends are volunteering, that companies are really working to help make their communities better places by giving people paid time to volunteer or by having programs to enrich their community, whether it's working with people in need or supporting the arts.

There is also an increasing reach to lower-income employees around flexibility. Statistically, men and employees of higher rank have more access to flexibility, and we've seen some really creative things with lower-wage workers; for example, Southern California Gas Co.

HRE: What organizations were the biggest standouts and why?

EG: One thing I like about Delta is the self-scheduling. Hospitals have been doing that for a while, and it's moving into the airline industry.

And the small consulting firm (Noble-Davis Consulting Inc. in Cleveland, with fewer than 20 employees), one of the things I like is that they have profit sharing. It's not just some people who benefit from the increased benefits; it's all the employees.

HRE: How can HR leaders better convince their bosses that such initiatives can have positive effects on an organization's bottom line and are not just "feel-good" initiatives?

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EG: I think reading the case studies. I mean, some of these companies had done this for altruistic reasons only, but it's typically a business strategy. If you go on to our website and our YouTube channel, you will see G. Brint Ryan, who's the CEO of Ryan. He says, 'If anyone needs convincing, we've done better than ever.'

HRE: Do you think most organizations are really making workplace effectiveness and flexibility a priority, or are these organizations the exceptions?

EG: I think that we're heading in that direction slowly but, no, I don't think it's the rule yet.

HRE: How can employers improve their chances of success when implementing a new workplace effectiveness and flexibility initiative?

EG: Pilot. Try it out. Get the kinks out of it before you launch it in a bigger way. There is another report through the Society for Human Resource Management called WorkFlex ( with very detailed case studies, lots of tools to use, needs assessments, outcome measures.

HRE: Are there any red flags for HR when discussing ideas − ways to tell that an idea won't be effectively implemented or isn't a good fit for the company?

EG: In our last study (2012), we found that flexibility had increased around full-time work but decreased around time away from work. I'm not thinking of our winners but speaking of the country in general. I don't think anyone has made a real crack in the issue of workload. I think flexibility is necessary but not sufficient to handle workload.

One company, Ryan, has done self-managed work probably better than anyone I've seen.

One thing I will say is that, for supervisors, this cannot be something where you end up feeling like you have more work. You have to make sure that whatever you're doing doesn't just work for your employees. It has to work for you. If you don't, you're going to resent it like crazy. I always think of it as putting on your own oxygen mask first. 

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