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The “F” Word: Employer Flexibility

We did some digging into some of the advertised benefits through the early 2000s into the early 2010s and it’s a bizarre trip down memory lane. Here are a few of our favorite benefits: “free mechanical bull rides any time,” and “onsite live workout classes and massage,” or, “a personal assistant for every employee, free beer Fridays, housecleaning services every month, and the best homemade guacamole served in culver city and you can have as much as you want.”

This was an early expression of workplace flexibility when it was a lever we could pull for recruiting great talent. But the mood has changed over the last few years and this week Terry Cook, Jillian Derby, and Kelly McInnis, join Pete Wright to describe the current environment around employer flexibility and answer the question: what does it mean to be a flexible employer today?

Episode Transcript

Pete Wright: Welcome to Human Solutions: Simplifying HR for People Who Love HR, from AIM HR Solutions on TruStory FM. I’m Pete Wright, and this week we’re talking all about flexibility. The roller coaster of the dot-com heyday planted the seeds for it with personal dry cleaning services and food and personal care, but the pandemic has put a whole new emphasis on the employee first revolution. Employees want their employers to be more flexible, and employers are trying to find ways to meet those needs. This week Terry Cook, our senior vice president of employer services, Jillian Derby, our senior marketing director, and Kelly McInnis, our director of business development, join me to talk all about flexibility in the workplace and what that means, from recruiting to what managers can do on their own to foster flexibility. Terry, Jillian, and Kelly, welcome to the show. I did some digging into some of the advertised benefits through the early 2000s and into the 2010s, and it’s a bizarre trip down memory lane. Here’s a few of the things I found. Onsite live workout classes and massage, okay? How about a personal assistant for every employee? Awesome. Free beer Fridays, house cleaning services every month. And then we get into some things that give me, they really spark joy. Free mechanical bull rides anytime or… Yeah, straight up. This is my favorite. "We have the best homemade guacamole served in Culver City, and you can have as much as you want." Guacamole as a staple of employee and employer flexibility. It seems to me, this was an early expression of workplace flexibility when it was a lever we could pull for recruiting great talent, right? This is how we need to stand apart from the rest of the field, but the mood has changed over the last few years. Kelly, I’ll start with you. How do you describe the current environment around employer flexibility? What does it mean to be flexible today?

Kelly McInnis: I think it means recognizing and meeting people where they’re at. Everybody is at a different stage of life. Everybody had a routine over two years ago, and now they’ve had to find their new normal and their new routine, and employers have had to make adjustments to meet the needs of getting what they need done at their business while keeping households functioning with working mothers and fathers and children, and everybody at one point working from the same space.

Pete Wright: So I guess that means, Terry, if I need it, because of this big transition, you will approve me having a mechanical bull now at my house?

Terry Cook: I’m not sure that that would be accurate, Pete.

Pete Wright: I love how you still approach that with delicacy in your answer, like there’s room to discuss but probably not.

Terry Cook: Probably not. Yeah. To Kelly’s point, flexibility means different things to different people. So when a company is trying to figure out what would work for flexibility, it’s not a one-size-fits-all approach. It’s different for different people. So it’s really about the company learning the needs of the employees and learning what they can and can’t do. Like, maybe not mechanical bull riding.

Pete Wright: You’re going to submit your reputation as an HR buzzkill, you know that, right?

Terry Cook: I know. I know. Yeah. So I think, as according to Kelly, I would agree. You need to know where your employees are at and really find out what you can do as a company to realistically meet them where their needs are. Again, it may not be extreme. It may not be individual to everybody, but really just knowing what you can do and what the employees are looking for.

Pete Wright: So let’s talk a little bit about what the employees are looking for. Jillian, you are a great example of what employees are looking for, right? What has your experience been like through the pandemic?

Jillian Derby: So my needs and my, AIM working with me on flexibility actually started before the pandemic. I was hired as a part-timer, and so I had been full-time, and after my second child, I just realized I couldn’t do it anymore. Even with working three days in Boston, two days from home, it was still too much for me to juggle. So I was looking for a part-time, and that’s how I came across AIM and AIM HR Solutions. They’ve been awesome with me even before the pandemic, of working with me to create a schedule that works for them and works for me. But then the pandemic happened, and everything got flipped upside down on its head. I was working from home. My husband was working from home, and we had three young children home, one being an infant, one who was four years old at the time, and my son, who was into kindergarten and then had to be doing remote school. So we had to balance the school’s schedule, my husband’s schedule, my schedule, and it was very chaotic. I think I woke up with a migraine every day. But my manager was great with me. AIM was great with me in working with, not just being remote, obviously, but not scheduling meetings at certain times of the day, understanding that if somebody was screaming in the background, that was just the reality of the situation. Sometimes it was me screaming. I mean, it was just really a raw time, right? I mean, in the background, if I had my camera on, you’d see my husband walking by 30 times. It was just a crappy reality that a lot of working parents had to deal with, but work never became a stress for me because of the people I worked with understanding.

Pete Wright: I think this is a great way to transition, right? This is the experience of being invited as managers and team members into our employees’ and peers’ homes for the first time, many of us, and that is a jarring experience, but that’s not the only way the experience is jarring. Kelly, before we got started, you were telling us a story about a transition that happened for you in your workplace just prior to the pandemic too. Let’s hear that story.

Kelly McInnis: Yes. It was extremely challenging. It was March of 2020, and I was working for an organization that was in the middle of transition, a retiring CEO and a new president taking over. Neither one of them looked at things the same way as far as accountability of employees. The retiring manager expected exempt and non-exempt employees to clock in every morning, clock in and out for lunch, and clock out to leave for the day. The new CEO, soon to be CEO president, was going the complete opposite enough to not qualify for vacation time. He wanted to go to unlimited PTO and people use it however they want. I was in the middle, and I got to tell you, it was emotionally draining and stressful, and that was before COVID. So now you have COVID, and I had 50 employees, and some of those employees were there 25-plus years. They didn’t even have email on their phone. It was a complete lockdown of the whole organization, and I had to transition people into a remote situation. Some of these people were older, not technically savvy, and they enjoyed going to work because they were alone. So they have the complete opposite of what Jillian was going through. My biggest concern through those months was the mental health wellness of everybody, trying to help the mothers with the kids, like Jillian, and trying to help the people that are 60 and 70 years old, that go to work for companionship and the ability to have people to talk to on a daily basis. So it was pretty tough. It’s kind of interesting we’re having this conversation, because my daughter will be 27 tomorrow, and I would’ve loved this situation 27 years ago. That would’ve been everything that I would want. I was in a situation where it was myself and another woman. We both had children. I was running HR and doing payroll. Literally, I had 160 people hourly on payroll with three sheets of paper. I had delivered my daughter on Thursday and took her to work with me on Monday, because there was nobody to do my job. So this would’ve been fantastic for me. I would’ve loved it. However, 27 years later, I got to tell you, I don’t like working remotely. It’s not what I signed up for. It’s not what I wanted to do. I looked at my life now, where I would be out with people, meeting them, and having my work buddies, because I didn’t have that life back in the day. So I think it’s really hard for companies to try to figure out how they’re going to be able to maintain the mental health of people and where they are at their life stages.

Pete Wright: Yeah. Yeah. Well, that makes for an interesting transition. One of the things that you’re alluding to is that we’ve had to adapt to work from home because of global conditions. Now we have to figure out how to adapt to swing back but not to the same place, right? Terry, isn’t that like, when you’re talking about creating this environment where employees are feeling comfortable doing the work that they do, however they need to do it, what are the sort of best-in-class employers doing to try to bounce back to that new state?

Terry Cook: I have heard people even internally that have said to me, "I would not have taken this position if it was in Boston full-time." So we literally got an employee because we weren’t in Boston. It’s a remote.

Pete Wright: Because you had already adapted.

Terry Cook: Yeah.

Pete Wright: Yeah, right.

Terry Cook: So some people might really want to work in person. Other people might need to work remotely or want to work remotely. So the best-in-class, I suppose, employers are really trying to do the best they can do to balance everything. But when you’re starting to look for new employees, you’re finding a lot more people that are looking for either a hybrid or a remote work environment than people that are looking for the face-to-face environments.

Pete Wright: It’s interesting that you would say that, because we just did this, an episode not long ago, about the managing across generations. And our delightful Gen Z participant said, "I’ve never known a work environment, and I can’t imagine ever going into an office, ever." That’s just not a thing that would be important to me at all. So I think that really represents the bullseye of challenge for businesses, to figure out how we can maintain a culture and not just bleed culture when people no longer want to come into the same space again. Jillian, what would you be looking for if you ended up, now that we’re kind of bouncing back, do you see yourself going back into a job when conditions change?

Jillian Derby: No, I’ve gotten used to this lifestyle. I can be there for my kids’ field trips. I can log off at four o’clock to pick up my child from daycare and spend time with them and then log back in at eight o’clock. It’s less about the hours you’re putting in and more about, is the work getting done? There’s that autonomy, I think, is a big piece of that flexibility. Through having that autonomy, that’s one thing I think my manager right now is really good at, I’ve developed more leadership skills and owning things and driving the bus, if you would. So I could never go back to the office right now full-time. Hybrid I could do, because I do think there’s elements that face-to-face and team building that are really important, but I’m good where I’m at, Pete. I’m good where I’m at, but I think it’s important too that companies realize, like Terry’s saying, flexibility is not the same thing for all. Maybe flexibility in your workplace is dress code flexibility. Maybe not everybody has to show up in business suits. It’s just figuring out what your people want and maybe what could make them a little happier, but it doesn’t always have to be remote, because we know that for some of our companies that we work with, manufacturers and things of that nature, it’s just not a reality that they can meet.

Pete Wright: In the spirit of helping employers figure out how to wade into these waters of being more flexible, let’s go back to my fictitious manufacturing organization and what they’re trying to do to help employees feel comfortable and have agency and autonomy to get the job done. What would the high level sort of the thinking be behind an employee friendly, employee first policy for flexibility in this organization? Terry, do you want to start?

Terry Cook: So I think a lot of it is really being creative in your approach. So we can’t move machinery into somebody’s house, so the remote option is not there for those employees. However, what I’ve seen some employers do is think about what they could do to make sure that they were flexible. So that might mean starting times between seven in the morning and nine in the morning instead of a certain start time and a shift. Because, as Kelly and Jillian have mentioned, things have changed for families and schools and day cares. Sometimes that just means that those workers may not have been able to apply for a job that started at six o’clock, because they can’t get there until eight o’clock because of school drop offs, daycare, or caring for a parent, making sure that they made all the arrangements that they needed to make in advance. So that scheduled start time being more flexible seems to have made a difference in some companies being able to retain or recruit new employees in those examples.

Pete Wright: Yeah, that’s a great point. Kelly, when we talk about how employers are selling their flexibility from a recruiting perspective, what are you seeing?

Kelly McInnis: So it’s interesting, because I’m starting to see a shift where, I just had a call a few minutes ago before I got on this, where somebody needs to hire part-time HR help, and they want the person to be on site. So I kind of had to dance around that subject. So I have to have a candid conversation with the CEO and try to pitch that this has been working, but I understand why it might not work for you, and try to get to the root of why it’s not working for them. What is their fear of not having somebody on site? What is the benefit of having somebody on site? And see if I can paint a picture for them that gets them what they need in having a part-time HR person that we can provide, but might not be able to be on site. So one of the things I noted when Terry was talking was, when I got to that company that I was at a year prior to COVID, one of the things, because I could tell that the culture of the company was very dated and I needed to get it up to speed, because we were not going to be able to attract the younger generation of software engineers that we needed with a company that the average age was 55-plus. So what I did do was, because we were on site at the time, I put a suggestion box with a lock in the conference room, and everybody was able to put, and people took advantage of it and they wrote down little notes on post-its and put it in the suggestion box. Like I said, I had the key to it. And that’s really how I was able to start the movement in the HR department before COVID on where we needed to go, not necessarily going to remote, but just as an organization, to create a culture that was going to be able to support multi-generations.

Pete Wright: Right.

Kelly McInnis: From a recruiting perspective, I rely a lot on my intuitiveness and my gut on what’s going to work for an organization, what’s going to work for the client. It’s experience. I have decades and decades of experience. I have to say that that’s probably the best asset that I have in my toolbox, is the experience to juggle the needs of people and listening to what they need and trying to find a solution.

Pete Wright: When you talk about an employee first kind of initiative, asking the employees what they need seems to be a pretty key step in the right direction.

Kelly McInnis: That’s even without COVID or remote or anything.

Pete Wright: Yeah.

Kelly McInnis: That’s just a basic 101, what do the employees want.

Pete Wright: Terry, as we wrap up, Kelly said something really interesting to me when she highlighted that, "What are you afraid of, CEO, about not having someone on site," right? "What are you afraid of about this transformation?" Writ large, if you were to tackle the big fear about this transformation to employee flexibility, how do you navigate the answer to that question in terms of speaking truth to power?

Terry Cook: No, that’s a great question. I’ve had that conversation with several key managers when they’re either recruiting or they’re talking about some requests from employees, and it seems like a lot of the fear is about not seeing somebody and making sure the productivity continues and the teamwork continues. So they are looking at things that are very real to them. So part of what I usually recommend is, "Let’s talk about productivity. How would you look if they were in person at their productivity, and how do you see that differently if they’re not in front of you when they’re at home?" So there’s still ways to measure productivity. You just have to make sure that you’re making the efforts to measure their productivity. If you’re worried about teamwork, make sure you’re scheduling those meetings. Make sure you have interactions where people are getting to know each other and getting to know what they all bring to the table at the company so that everybody does feel connected. I think, especially during COVID, we have the same things happening at our company, where we’ve brought on several people during COVID that many of us have not even met face-to-face. So it’s been really important for us to just connect any way that we can, whether that’s through informal meetings, whether that’s through formal meetings, whether that’s through sharing things that are happening in our lives, so that we really feel like we do know each other. Then when we do see each other face-to-face, I know that I still feel like I know all these people already, even though I haven’t been sitting in an office with them.

Pete Wright: Jillian, you have been reaping the benefits of this transition. Do you, once and for all, need a mechanical bull at home?

Jillian Derby: No, but I’m highly interested in the dry cleaning services, and I think my husband, massages, very interested. The guacamole would also be of interest.

Pete Wright: Outstanding. This has been great. Thank you all so much, Kelly McInnis, Terry Cook and Jillian Derby. Thank you so much for hanging out with me and talking about the big F word, flexibility, in the workplace. As always, you can find links and notes about this show You can listen to the show right there on the website or subscribe in Apple Podcasts or Spotify or anywhere your favorite podcasts are served. Thank you everybody for downloading and listening. We appreciate your time and attention. We’ll be back next time on Human Solutions: Simplifying HR for People Who Love HR.

Each week we will showcase a bite-size conversation dedicated to helping you get your arms around another HR challenge. The people on this show have decades of experience, and this is our chance to share that knowledge with you.

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