“Little” Reddit Offers Requiem for Remotes – Will San Francisco Respond?

by Paul Rupert

More than 1200 hi-tech start-ups and household names from Yelp to Salesforce call San Francisco home. Web phenom Reddit, the self-styled “front page of the internet,” is small but influential. It became its own lead story last week as word leaked out that it had offered its numerous, and in many cases long-term remote employees, the choice of relocation to San Francisco headquarters or a “generous severance package.”

The move-here-or-move-on edict did not seem tied to performance issues, the collapse of collaboration or imminent financial or competitive peril. In fact, the high-flying firm had just secured a $50 million investment from a group of tech funders (unrelated to this policy, we are told.)

Reddit resembles a mini-Yahoo, but is it?

Critics and supporters alike were quick to draw parallels between the decisions of Marissa Mayer’s Yahoo to “ban telecommuting” early last year. While “bans” may resemble “ultimatums” and terminating offsite work and workers may look the same, the similarities stop there:


When Yahoo acted, even critics had to agree that it was in deep trouble, maybe needing all hands on deck. True or not, it was said Ms. Mayer inherited “sub-performing Yahoos working at home.” She “had to” clean house.

Reddit’s fortunes are quite the opposite. Seasoned Valley investors chose to put their cash into Reddit for its track record and its prospects. It is riding high, not taking water.


Yahoo’s original memo never “banned” telecommuting. It told staff that telecommuters would have to discuss their status with managers. Then Yahoo went silent. A national Rorschach test ensued.

Reddit CEO Yishan Wong was blunt with his remotes: move to SF or accept severance. First wanting decisions within a week, the goal is now year-end. He tweets: “Intention is to get whole team under one roof for optimal teamwork. Our goal is to retain 100 percent of the team.”


Marissa Mayer came to Yahoo from Google, a stranger to telecommuting. She found 250 of them on her staff. They weren’t hers.

Reddit’s whole staff seems to number less than 100. But its remotes are home-grown, long-term and proven quantities. Presumably they have played an integral role in building this robust site.

Did Yahoo set up a tripwire to the north – and did Reditt trip?

The “Marissa Mayer” moment set off a national dialogue that roiled the blogosphere and media for a year. While millions of words were being written and spoken, Supervisor David Chiu of San Francisco was acting.  Responsible for a city that was technologizing and gentrifying at a rapid rate, he proposed a line in the sand for business behavior re: flexible arrangements.

He and a unanimous Board of Supervisors passed the Family Friendly Workplace Ordinance (FFWO). Taking a first step in distinguishing a more family-friendly city by the bay from the anything goes employment practices of Silicon Valley’s Sunnyvale, the FFWO:

  • Requires all SF employers with 20 or more employees to allow them to request flexible schedules without threats or retaliation
  • Enables caregivers of children under 18, aging parents or ill spouses to make requests
  • A carefully timed process requires a formal request, response within 21 days, and a similar internal appeal process
  • FFWO took effect on 1/1/14; process enforcement, with fines, begins 1/1/15

Does the “Right to Request” trump the right to relocate?

Reddit’s actions might strike some as unremarkable. Others may be shocked and wonder if the process used violates the letter or spirit of SF’s new ordinance.

The City’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement judges and enforces the letter of FFWO. It might take into account the following:

  • All Reddit employees, have a right to request caregiving options, including remote work
  • Requests can be refused for specified and objective business reasons
  • The employee can submit requests two to three times in a calendar year

The situation of a given remote will determine eligibility for this process – and willingness to use it.

San Francisco political, business and community leaders may well weigh in on the spirit of the Reddit’s decision and the FFWO. When Yahoo acted in 2013, the silence from Silicon Valley leaders was deafening. If San Francisco’s goal is to support a more family-friendly high-tech sector, we might expect messages such as these:

  • Seemingly arbitrary and sudden decisions that might dislocate families at the beginning of the school year pose multiple and unnecessary burdens.
  • Even with a “generous COLA”, San Francisco does not need more unnecessary housing pressure – no matter how incremental.
  • Clearly remote work has been and can be made to work – by Reddit itself. A major goal in front of all of us is to perfect it, not reject it.
  • In short, this is not how model SF employers of the 21st century behave. It is not a family-friendly path for growth. And Reddit, like Yahoo will be watched as a model.

© 2014 Rupert & Company. All Rights Reserved

Posted in Ask4Flex, Collaborative Scheduling, FFWO, Flexible Work, Remote Work, Telecommuting, Work/Life Balance | Leave a comment

“Right to Request” Flex Goes Viral – Where Do You Stand?

by Paul Rupert

Flexibility stops plodding and goes for the fast track

In 2012, the tally of employees covered by a legislated right to request flexible schedules was:

UK = 30 million     Australia = 11.5 million     New Zealand = 2.6 million     US = 0

Flash forward to today. As we acknowledged our many rights on the 4th of July, the Right to Request (RTR) gathered momentum and threatened to join them. A decade-old UK practice spread to its resistant former colony. The current number of US employees in areas with such laws or pending legislation are:

Vermont: 340,000   A State law took effect on January 1, 2014

San Francisco: 1 million   The Family Friendly Work Ordinance went into effect on January 1, 2014

Federal workforce: 2.1 million   President Obama issued an RTR Executive Order on June 23, 2013

New York City: 3.5 million   The Comptroller has studied and recommended a Right to Request law

Berkeley: 60,000   An initiative has been placed on the Fall Ballot to implement an RTR law

We take note of new cars that race from 0 to 60 in record time. Perhaps we should pay attention to RTR acceleration that in one year has leapt from 0 to 7 million covered employees. Can we expect this trend to continue?

The last year’s acceleration of Right to Request laws may be shifting to a higher gear

As I said in my late November TLNT piece, Flex Work Legislation:

Many observers, including a surprising number of critics, see FFWO as an early step in a broader national movement.

Six months later those critics have proven prescient. Judging from what we have heard from San Francisco’s Supervisor Chiu and other advocates, inquiries about the legislation are coming in from cities throughout California and state legislators, and cities and states around the country. Legislation might be underway in jurisdictions near you.

It is not so surprising why. Federal RTR legislation has stalled repeatedly since its first introduction in 2007. An insistently unproductive Congress has refused to deal with workplace issues from minimum wage to flexible schedules. Calls for “leave it to the states” have been taken seriously by family and flexibility advocates. Thus cities and states legislate issues that have been national ones elsewhere.

Advocates are sharpening their briefs and diversifying their legislation

Scott Stringer, Comptroller of New York City, explains his city’s motivation as follows:

For New York City to remain an economic engine, it must actively compete with other global cities for top talent and business investment…[F]lexible work arrangements not only boost employee morale and productivity, they also improve corporate profitability and reduce turnover.

From American Express and Citigroup to KPMG and IBM, flexible work arrangements are on the rise…However, the pace of change is still frustratingly slow for millions of New Yorkers who are not afforded the opportunity to integrate work and family life through the use of FWAs. By implementing best practices and creating a framework for discussions between employers and employees, businesses both large and small will be spurred to consider flexible work arrangements. It is an idea whose time has come.

Clearly the comptroller sees the Right to Request firmly lodged in the work-life or family support movement. His preference is for an RTR for caregivers, similar to San Francisco’s. Vermont’s law and Berkeley’s initiative would extend the RTR to all employees. Interestingly, just this month after 10 years of caregiver-only focus, the UK law was broadened to cover all employees.

The “laboratory” of local action offers a lot of options and a modest chance of chaos

A year ago a call to pay attention to the Right to Request experiment might have seemed trivial given many other economic, organizational and social issues in the workplace. As this process unfolds, the time seems to have come for those concerned with employee engagement, performance and, yes, flexibility to join in the RTR conversation – especially as it comes to a theater near you.

The Comptroller makes two points about flex that are absolutely right:  “the pace of change is still frustratingly slow for millions” and “It is an idea whose time has come.” Although we have had reservations about the Right to Request approach, we have offered conditional support because business practice has lagged well beyond proven practice – and popular pressure. And we believe that regulation without intelligent design and proven implementation support will create numerous new problems as it tries to solve old ones.

As you consider the issues raised by RTR and possible involvement in legislation in your neighborhood, here are some design decisions to bear in mind:

Coverage   In the political tension between what’s right and what’s feasible, one must ask:

  • Does the Right to Request apply to all employees or only caregivers?
  • Is if for all employers or only those with 10/20/50 employees
  • Does the RTR take effect at time of hiring or with a tenure of 6 months, 1 year or…?

Process   The method for proposing and reviewing requests can range from loose to tight, such as:

  • An expectation that managers will meet with employees to discuss a request
  • A requirement that employees make requests in writing and supervisors respond in writing
  • Stipulation of a detailed, timed  back-and-forth in writing, with an internal (and/or external) appeal

Decision   Existing and proposed RTR legislation allow denial on the first basis below; there are options:

  • A manager or business can deny a request for general or defined business reasons
  • A denial can be appealed to an external 3rd party
  • Employees must identify business value of requested schedule; managers deny by proving harm

Implementation   The greatest variety and weakness occurs in this area:

  • The more formal process can be enforced by a relevant agency
  • Process guidance can be offered by that or other agencies
  • Implementation assistance for businesses goes beyond process to how to manage flex

US experience suggests a consistent approach

In this decentralized march toward RTR, a consensus on best practices might emerge. One push in that direction could come from the experience of hundreds of US companies that already offer flexibility on more inclusive terms than much of this legislation. Drawing on our experience with more than 100 companies and hospitals and our observation of hundreds more, we might suggest these four guiding design principles:

Coverage   It should apply to all employees. Equity demands it. It’s proven easier for small firms; include them. Flex maximizes recruitment if new hires can request.

Process   A formal and timed proposal process with internal appeal brings sunshine to the process, and with available software need not be cumbersome.

Decision   Our clients say “Yes” to proposals with a positive or neutral impact and “No” if a negative impact. Employees should bake the business into their proposals; employers should prove harm.

Implementation   Process guidance alone is not enough. Helping employees and managers succeed with these new ways of working is essential. A range of tools exist to avoid reinventing the wheel.

© 2014 Rupert & Company. All Rights Reserved

Posted in Ask4Flex, Collaborative Scheduling, FFWO, Flexible Work, Telecommuting, Work/Life Balance | Leave a comment

Bad Managing is Like Smoking – It’s a Habit, Not Ignorance

by Paul Rupert

Barely a week goes by without at least one article or study  bemoaning the things managers don’t know or do. A frequent target: the pitifully low level of workplace feedback.

Feedback is “too rare,” “too vague” or too “attaboy.” Its weakness or absence is considered demoralizing, demotivating and devastating to the workforce – a serious disengager.

Not surprisingly, many well-intended articles are brimming with common sense suggestions. Predictable lists dissect when, where and how to give feedback, and the many ways unenlightened managers can begin to do the right thing in the right way.

Some Changes Can be Taught, but Longstanding Habits Are Different

The problem with this avalanche of advice is simple and deep: the widespread managerial practice of not giving people ongoing guidance, direction and support has become so deeply engrained and ubiquitous a habit that it resembles smoking in the workplace a decade or two ago.

While smoking was a pervasive presence and feedback resembles a corrosive absence, both produce a toxic environment. The haze of smoke and the haziness of manager silence were not created by a shortage of information or warnings – or blog posts.  They were created and sustained by millions of individual behaviors taken – or not taken – again and again despite their actual, known and chronicled downsides.

To varying degrees, people knew better. They could read but did not heed the warnings. They were simply the victims of bad habits. Nicotine drove or reinforced the smoking habit. Perhaps the norms of organizational success are the equivalent substance driving silence where commentary should flourish.  After all, similar environmental factors support both harmful habits.

THE HABITS SEEM NEARLY UNIVERSAL   When everyone does it (ashtrays abound) or few if any do it (feedback is seldom heard), a powerful but unspoken norm exists. Subtle or pervasive social pressure may reinforce the norm. As a critical manager once told me in a focus group, “Here we believe that real men don’t give feedback – or need it.” There are exceptions to any rule in a workplace. There were always non-smokers and those giving good feedback – but they were far less visible.

WINNERS CREDIT THE NORMS FOR THEIR SUCCESS   Most would-be and existing managers believe that you move toward the top by emulating the dominant standards and habits (the so-called culture) of the organization. If you’ve moved up often and survived a couple decades receiving or giving little or no feedback, it might seem to be a factor in your success.  There’s certainly little percentage in randomly putting out cigarettes or publicly and regularly providing praise and direction.

HABITS TRUMP WARNING LABELS The most instructive piece of the smoking analogy is the famous and long-running surgeon general mini-post: “Cigarette smoking may be hazardous to your health.” For two decades this instruction was the backdrop to increasingly intensive and comprehensive efforts to contain and reduce smoking. This memorable backdrop was widely viewed as largely ineffective itself in actually changing The Habit.

And so it may be with our avalanche of guides to good managerial behavior. They are an important, but ultimately largely ineffective step in changing the decades-old habit of studied silence that is clearly hazardous to individual and organizational health. Any managerial wellness program should include this most basic behavior modification as just that: part of an intentional and systematic initiative to modify core behaviors.

My firm learned in a multi-year, 16-hospital team self-scheduling project in New York City the limits of change by proclamation. Dysfunctional habits, including the widespread withholding of feedback in these rigid and unionized environments, had to be changed for collaborative scheduling to occur. What we called the Mutual Respect skills only took hold when serious behavior modification – long-term interactive training + supports – occurred.

WITHOUT REINFORCEMENT, CHANGE IS A LONG SHOT  Unfortunately, there is no “patch” to reinforce good managerial habits. But there are compelling reasons for organizations to intensify the prevalence of feedback and other habits like providing direction for development, useful performance information between reviews and coaching. These can be low-cost, high-impact changes. But they require ongoing and thorough support, such as:

Mandate a non-smoking (or feedback intensive) workplace   Hazards can and should be outlawed as a matter of policy. Absent such a declaration and the implementation steps below, tens of millions of employees will be the victims of first-hand and second-hand indifference. Engagement will suffer.

Set standards for quality, quantity of feedback   To declare there should be more and better feedback is meaningless. In many workplaces, today’s standard would be: 0 feedback to all employees in a 6-month period. Consider setting a simple Year 1 mandate: 1 piece of feedback to each employee weekly. Sounds like quite a change. But a no smoking office has no smoking ever by everyone – quite a change indeed. Proposing such metrics would be a lively discussion – but one that is long overdue. And the standard could be raised over time

Create effective, long-term training and supports   The difference between habitually urging change and decisively changing behavior is substantial. It resembles the difference between much corporate education and Marine training. One hopes for impact and the other insists that lasting and predictable behavioral change occur. If old habits – such as never giving feedback – are accepted, rewarded and comfortable, modifying them requires at least:

  • Intensive behavioral training with follow-on reinforcement sessions that undoes old assumptions, introduces systematic goals for giving feedback, breaks down resistance and reinforces success.
  •  Quarterly assessment of behavior change progress against goals based on 360° feedback.  Retraining can be provided as needed.
  • Commitment to an ongoing campaign to maintain a “smoke-free” or feedback rich environment, maintaining a commitment to standards and exploring ways to strengthen an appreciative culture.

Hasn’t the time come to move beyond describing toxic environments and the voluntary steps that might clean them up? If there were a Manager General, she would probably have moved beyond warning labels by now.

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San Francisco’s “Right to Request” Law: Turns Out Hindsight is 20/20

by Paul Rupert

Who knew Yahoo was a sideshow?
Just about a year ago, the first-time CEO of a failing Silicon Valley tech company gave the media and flex advocates a unique Valentine gift – one that would dominate flex-related headlines, conversations and blogs for much of 2013. Marissa Mayer of Yahoo gave us a neatly packaged “ban on telecommuting.” And it seemed that a million home-based workers of the world rose up in response.

We published lists of personal and business gains; claims of productivity levels any company would envy; and comments on collaboration tools that made not being there seem almost more desirable than being co-located. As the dust settled, months of speculation began about whether Yahoo’s step backwards into the office was a turning point or a tempest in a teapot for the relentless telecommuting trend.

Even the Feds get Telecommuting
The answer has turned out to be much more teapot and a lot less turning point. One example: I write this blog in my cozy home office near Washington, DC, surrounded by 12” of snow. DC is a city notorious for seeing 2” of snow produce paralysis and more than a million home-bound and idle federal workers.

Not so these days. The Federal government has embraced telework. A small initiative has spread to major agencies. Hundreds of thousands of GSA, Agriculture, Treasury and other teleworkers are “at work” in this disruptive 2014 snowstorm. The leaders and managers of the federal government have their eyes on business continuity, productivity and employee engagement – not on the Yahoos of the world.

And the private sector has put the pedal to the metal, expanding flexibility for many business reasons. No doubt some business execs have used the telecommuting ban to reinforce belief in their old habits. But even a glance in the rearview mirror shows that Ms. Mayer’s edict has proven a tiny eddy in the transformative wave of where, when and how Americans work. She was great media, but poor prophecy.

But Did We Miss a Significant Turning Point Nearby?
While we and the media were trying to read the flex tea leaves in Silicon Valley, a far more significant event was taking place just up the freeway. David Chiu, the third-term President of San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors had become advocate and architect of a very different approach to flexibility: the Family Friendly Workplace Ordinance (FFWO.)

Rather than using his power to ban flexibility in “Silicon Valley North” he was surveying the globe to find a model that would make his city a more flexible, family-friendly environment. David Chiu was a successful businessman before becoming an effective political leader. He offered flexible schedules to his staff with family needs, and saw great commitment and productivity results.

Seeing Flexibility as a Social Good, Not an Anti-Social Bad
He did not see flexibility as a narrow program for employee and company only. As he confronted a gentrifying city in which family flight was becoming a serious issue, he wrestled with the factors that drove people away or kept them – what might be called social recruitment and retention. So he and the Board addressed affordable housing and health care, quality education and accessible housing – and the nature of work. The city had low unemployment, but not the scheduling flexibility or – predictability – that was compatible with the demands of family life.

Rather than ban telecommuting in one small company, he set out to mandate the “Right to Request” any flexible schedule for all San Francisco employers with 20 employees or more. Quietly, persistently, effectively he took the general approach of the UK, Australia and others, skipped the Congress that had been deadlocked on this approach for a decade, secured business community neutrality on the ordinance and in October, 2013 saw SF declare potential national policy on flexibility in one high-visibility city.

If the media noticed, it apparently yawned. Perhaps as the initiative rolls out, as Supervisor Chiu runs for a seat in The California Assembly, as this approach spreads across California or to other cities, we’ll hear as much about FFWO in 2014 as we did Yahoo! in 2013.

Perhaps the Lessons of Obamacare will make the difference
The impact and legacy of FFWO depends on companies learning to do flexibility well. As we were reminded in the healthcare website debacle, whatever the value of the law, a botched rollout is lethal.

One of the constraints in San Francisco’s approach is that the Board passed a law, a city commission will do some publicity and the agency that enforces workplace issues (minimum wage, health coverage, etc.) will fine process violators starting in 2015. But who will help a reluctant and inexperienced business community – especially many thousands of small businesses – master the FFWO process and the implementation of diverse schedules? Who will innovate the schedule “predictability” for hourly workers

Enter Ask4Flex, a Website That Works
While most of us were only able to be voyeurs and distant commentators in the private Yahoo! process, the One Million for Flexibility and others can participate more actively in this significant, public San Francisco initiative. We can follow, publicize and assess the value of this approach. And we can point colleagues, clients and friends doing business in San Francisco to resources that can help them with superior implementation.

My firm, Rupert & Company, has drawn on our decades of experience installing the flex request system and forms, to develop a website that supports the city and its employers in pursuing a path of FFWO compliance or collaboration to build broader and deeper flexibility. You can learn more about the San Francisco project and the FFWO by going to our website www.Ask4Flex.org  and seeing how we seek to strengthen a socially beneficial outcome for flexibility in San Francisco.

Effective implementation will require the work of thousands. Let’s join in.

Posted in Ask4Flex, FFWO, Flexible Work, Work/Life Balance | Leave a comment

Foes and Fans of Flexibility Mount Fall Face-Off

by Paul Rupert

If 2013 has been a year of telework controversy, October is raising the bar.

Its first two weeks have brought several strong – and conflicting – voices to the debate: FFWO,  HP and One Million for Work Flexibility.

FFWO –  San Francisco’s Board of Supervisors voted unanimously in early October to adopt the Family Friendly Workplace Ordinance, requiring that businesses with more than 20 employees must allow them to request flexible schedules without retaliation. It became the first major US city to do so.

HP – Due south, in the heart of Silicon Valley, Hewlett-Packard’s relatively new CEO Meg Whitman, called for “all hands on deck, ” summoning telecommuters  back to the office via an unsigned “Q&A.”

Million – Meanwhile a national coalition of flexibility advocates and users launched an online petition campaign in search of one million signers touting the benefits of flexibility (my firm, Rupert & Company, is a sponsor.)

Another precinct is heard from…and more could weigh in
Each of these moves is arguably a response to the telework tussle kicked off by Yahoo’s Marissa Mayer and her so-called telework ban in January. They occur in the legislative, popular and executive realms. What do they tell us about the state of play and the likely next acts in this continuing drama?

San Francisco’s ordinance is modeled on social legislation in the UK, Australia and elsewhere. There have been unsuccessful attempts to achieve such legislation in Washington, DC, for many years. The Chamber of Commerce and business allies have been fierce and successful opponents.

David Chiu, President of the SF Board of Supervisors and chief sponsor of the FFWO has said quite clearly that he acted in response to Yahoo’s ban. As San Francisco becomes home to so many tech companies that it resembles “Silicon Valley North,” the Supervisors overcame Chamber opposition to put a modest family-friendly stake in the ground, to say that Yahoo-like behavior was not desirable.

Unrest on the blogosphere begins to coalesce
More than a city responded to the telework ban. Teleworkers, conventional media, the blogosphere and conferences sensed a threat to telework and other forms of flexibility and stoked a chorus of opposition.

This fall organizers began an online effort to give voice to the grassroots supporters of flexibility. It is not clear where it will go beyond the goal of collecting a million signatures.  Although initial support is largely from advocacy groups, consultants and individuals, the stated belief is that “efforts from individuals and corporate headquarters are needed in order to achieve more traction for change.”

Then a corporate flexibility icon sees Yahoo – and raises the stakes
Hewlett-Packard was an early leader of and in Silicon Valley – a mature start-up and an organizational innovator. It was not surprising, though it was startling, when HP introduced flextime in 1972, adopted a full flexible work menu ahead of the pack and became an aggressive practitioner of telework and remote work at the end of the last century.

Perhaps it was Meg Whitman’s political instincts or a more PR-prone HR group that led them to eschew a banning memo in favor of a non-attributed “Q&A document” that has been quietly distributed.  It says in part:

“During this critical turnaround period, HP needs all hands on deck. We recognize that in the past, we may have asked certain employees to work from home for various reasons. We now need to build a stronger culture of engagement and collaboration and the more employees we get into the office the better company we will be.”

The significance of this development is hard to tell. HP is not the newer, weaker, less respected Yahoo, with a limited and hardly celebrated dabbling in flexibility.  Meg Whitman is not a first-time CEO one year into a long shot gig; she is a seasoned success from eBay, a $150 million investor in her candidacy for California governor, hopeful architect of an HP turnaround. This low-profile event could have high impact on the “back to the office” momentum.

Takeaways: emerging camps, C-suite silence and pseudo-collaboration
Each of these developments is worth following and studying as they evolve. Looking at all of them, three themes emerge:

  1. Clear camps may be emerging: What started as a single company action may have launched a far more serious conversation and reexamination of how we work. The open response of companies like HP and the quiet murmurs of agreement we hear in the business community have begun to stir the action of those who can and want to have flexible schedules.  This tension may pass or grow, but it has built rather than faded throughout this year.
  2. The C-Suite has been largely silent: Surely leadership opinion is diverse on this issue. Many companies have successfully used telework and remote work to satisfy employees, cut costs and support innovation.  Where are their CEOs? Can they join the conversation?
  3. The irony of undoing collaboration to promote it: As I have said in previous pieces, we perceived “flexibility,” “telework,” etc. as the outcomes of an underlying process: collaborative scheduling. Managers and employees work together to create innovative ways of working. It is odd, at the least, that both the Yahoo memo and HP Q&A cite greater collaboration in the office as the reason to suspend collaboration in schedules.

If today’s trends continue, this 2013 issue will likely carry over to, and intensify in 2014.

Posted in Ask4Flex, FFWO, Flexible Work, Work/Life Balance | Leave a comment

Can – and Should – San Francisco Mandate Flexible Workplaces?

by Paul Rupert

San Francisco – While on business here the last 10 days, I had the opportunity to join discussions about the city’s proposed flexibility ordinance. My conclusions follow. 

When San Francisco Supervisor David Chiu proposed a ballot measure requiring companies to entertain flexible schedule requests from staff, Chamber of Commerce VP Jim Lazarus said two words: “Beyond unbelievable.” The battle was joined.

Let the lobbying begin

Board of Supervisors President Chiu is a highly capable political leader – and no stranger to conflict. He has taken on quite a few tough issues in his tenure. When he promoted a city-wide ballot measure requiring San Francisco businesses to consider caregiver requests for flexible and predictable schedules, he expected some resistance.

He did not expect 24/7 negotiations for weeks on end with multiple business groups from the Chamber to long-time allies in the restaurant association. And of course he also did a lot of what he expected to do: met with constituents and pro-family groups who spoke of situation after situation in which rigid managers and work schedules made family life painful. They were delighted to see their need for scheduling flexibility and predictability being taken seriously at last.

By the time I met with the Supervisor at his request, a lot of the rougher edges had been taken off the bill – the appeal of any denial to a city agency and the size of businesses covered shifting from 10 to 20 employees. What was left was the process that hundreds of our clients and other employers nationally have come to accept on a voluntary basis as desirable and workable.

The proposed ballot measure 

So at this point, what is being proposed? Asked to testify to the Board’s Rules Committee on our considerable experience in helping companies develop Flexible Work Arrangement request systems, we said:

The essential process we have installed widely is straightforward:  an employee uses a standard, simple form to make a request for a flexible schedule. A manager reviews the request and may discuss it and ask for modification. Then that manager makes a final decision. This process is the one being proposed by President Chiu and the co-sponsors of the Family-Friendly Work Ordinance (FFWO.)

This fairly common procedure itself  no longer seems to be the issue. It is the prospect of legislating business procedures at all, let alone in a city-wide referendum, that continues to be debated vigorously as the proposal moves toward a full Board of Supervisors vote in July and the potential November ballot.

Putting the Urge to Legislate in Context

TLNT readers will surely have opinions on these questions and make up their own minds about what should happen. I think it might be useful to share some of the forces we observed at work in San Francisco this week and what they say about the trajectory of flexibility where we live. Among the things I found were:

  • Impatience is growing   I started my flexibility advocacy work with New Ways to Work in San Francisco in 1986; yes, that’s 27 years ago. As I discussed the viability of the flex request process during this visit, the fear that “everyone will want it”, the concern that managers will be overwhelmed with paperwork, I looked back over almost three decades and reached a conclusion.

We have been in a long national pilot project to determine if different ways of working are viable. Part-time, compressed schedules, telecommuting and the rest work. Like any initiative, well-designed and well-managed, they work well. Period. Many people who don’t yet have the flexibility they need feel like it is time to declare the pilot over. Workplace flexibility is, and should be a fact of life. Apparently, SF leaders think that if ballots give voice, a little nudge can’t hurt.

  • “We already do this” has worn thin  The most common argument against formal, mandated flexibility I heard was that every business owner believes they are already plenty flexible informally. Why legislate a solution when there is no problem?

There has always been informal flexibility – it is often called “accommodation.” It may be limited to certain people or levels, it may be tentative and is often modest. It is fine and should continue.

But a formal process helps level the playing field, expanding options, encouraging fearful applicants and offering stability. And just as most of us may be a little less good-looking, brilliant or charming than we think, in our experience most organizations are a little less flexible than they think.

  • There is a preference for voluntary action  I do not speak for Supervisor Chiu. But I can say that no one we spoke with or heard testify was dying to see legislation. People responded well to our description of large employers such as Sodexo, Memorial Sloan-Kettering, Colgate and many, many others offering the opportunity to propose creative, mutually beneficial schedule changes to hundreds of thousands of their employees.

If companies simply adopted these simple, proven, non-disruptive measures, there would be no need to consider requiring a measure such as San Francisco’s. It would not be hard to get ahead of this legislative curve.

The Time for Action Has Come – One Way or the Other

Ever since the United Kingdom, Australia and other countries adopted similar national legislation, I have not been a big fan. I believe that:

  • Flexible schedules should be open to all, not just caregivers
  • They should be business- and employee-beneficial, not a flat benefit offering
  • They should drive a creative work redesign process, not be a frozen menu

I believe companies can and should move in this direction – and do so deliberately and comprehensively. If they fail to do so, if they think this modest ballot proposition is “beyond unbelievable,” I think they may find that the position of doing little or nothing is unsustainable.

While San Francisco wrestles with this issue and may vote on it in November, the rest of the country might do well to tackle the substance and make further legislation unnecessary.  

Posted in Flexible Work, Telecommuting, Work/Life Balance | Leave a comment

As Turnover Rises, Can Flex Deliver “Recruitment and Retention?”

By Paul Rupert

“The U.S. economy added 175,000 jobs in May, in line with average job growth over the prior 12 months.” – CNN Money

The level of unemployment is slowly, ever so slowly, coming down. In my consulting work over the last two decades, the unemployment rate’s trajectory has been a great barometer of how seriously companies focus on workplace flexibility.

For two decades employee demand for all forms of flexibility has climbed steadily year in and year out. Supply has not kept pace. As unemployment rises, flex offerings plateau or fall. During normal recessions, after 9/11, in the course of this massive recession – we have seen companies’ staff time, attention and budget shifted away from an emphasis on voluntary flexibility.

Lower unemployment breeds turnover – and the search for solutions. If high unemployment means that employee demands for greater control over their schedules can be ignored, today’s shifting numbers argue the opposite. From individuals to HR leaders to executives, all sense that change is in the air. Turnover, tighter labor markets and unfilled positions are coming back – and with them, a renewed focus on recruitment and retention, and of course, the flexibility that many believe can help keep and deliver essential talent.

A recent study captures the turning of labor markets:

1. “Half of Companies Report Higher Turnover Than Last Year” John Hollon’s excellent piece in a recent TLNT covered an OI Partners survey of 153 companies. The result:
“51 percent of those surveyed report having higher employee turnover in 2013 compared to only 30 percent that had higher turnover in 2012.”

2. Higher turnover is feeding fear of even greater turnover John goes on to say: “As you can imagine, this higher turnover is also fueling concerns about losing still more workers due to the better job market, and those concerns are running high across all organizational levels as well:

o High-potentials: 78 percent of organizations are concerned about losing high-potential workers;
o Middle managers: 63 percent are worried about middle managers departing;
o Front-line workers: 51 percent are concerned about losing employees on the front lines;
o Senior executives: 43 percent are worried about senior-level executives leaving”

As recovery continues and talent grows as a priority, the “flex-as-recruiter-and-retainer” mantra resumes.

But Is Flex a Powerful Part of the Toolkit, or More Hope than Promise? In the distant days before the Great Recession, a simple piece of conventional wisdom prevailed: Flexible Work Arrangements were highly valued by employees. Their wider use could give companies a “recruiting and retention” edge. If that was true then, the thinking goes, it must be even truer now.

I am a longtime architect, advocate and analyst of flexible ways of working. I strongly believe that they can satisfy employees and benefit businesses, and make a workplace more attractive. But to reliably keep and attract talent, they need to be carefully and purposefully designed and consistently implemented. Unfortunately, that is rarely the case.

Casual programs with limited support are far more common – and far from effective. In the face of growing turnover and labor scarcity I would encourage employers to take a hard look at their flexibility practices and seriously retool them before they start banking on the hope of reduced turnover and turbocharged recruiting.

Yes, Retention is Flexibility’s Sweet Spot – But How Sweet? From the publication of the seminal Creating a Flexible Workplace in 1989 to a featured flex article in last month’s Workforce.com, the recruitment and retention power of flexibility has been assumed and trumpeted literally tens of thousands of times. There is some truth and data embedded in these claims. But how much?

There are two basic claims for the retention power of flexibility:

1. Satisfying schedules meet pressing personal and family needs

2. Once on flex, it is risky to leave in search of a similar schedule elsewhere

Flexible schedules retain people because they want and need them This is true – as far as it goes. But flexibility is usually random: The option employees want may not be available; their manager can say no for any reason; whole groups of people can be denied participation.

Further, much flexibility allowed is far from flexible. People would prefer the fluid flexibility that allows them to mesh varying personal requirements with demanding and unpredictable workflows. Instead, many employers offer rigid rather than flexible arrangements.

They withhold compressed schedules, limit telework to one day a week, find job sharing too challenging and confine flextime to narrow bands. Such random and rigid flexibility is more likely to be somewhat satisfying than truly satisfying for most employees. Retention power? Maybe.

Flexible schedules are “sticky” because employees can’t easily find them elsewhere If employees are pleased with their arrangements, they can contribute to retention – especially if it would be hard to secure them in a new job. But this depends on three big “ifs”: 

If you have an arrangement you value and think you can keep 
If other employers don’t offer similar options 
If your option is rare enough to prove truly “sticky”

As more and more employers offer schedules – especially flextime and telework – on a similar programmatic basis, the stickiness fades. Job sharing, promotion-friendly part-time and compressed schedules for managers are far stickier than modest work from home – and much rarer. As telework sprouts everywhere, it is less likely to keep people anywhere.

Flexibility can attract talent, but such claims are frequently overblown Flexible schedules, like compensation and benefits, are essential elements when a recruit considers an offer. But can flex really stack up in a package? All three are valued, but only two are clear and concrete. One the one hand are a starting salary, incentives, 401 K match – all kicking in on Day One. Along with these come health insurance, dental, vision care and more.

But what is the powerful recruiting offer for a prospect who values flexibility? It might be:

• We have flexible schedules, but we can’t negotiate them as part of this offer 
• You should be eligible to apply after 3/6/12 months of service 
• Your manager will offer options from our menu and decide on your proposal 
• Any arrangement may be terminated if you are promoted or transferred

A climate which includes even this constrained flexibility would be more appealing than one that didn’t, just as the existence of flawed arrangements improves the odds of retention. But companies threatened by pent-up and actual turnover and preparing for the next round of talent wars should not confuse seeming tools for actual magnets for the best and the brightest.

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