Commentary & Analysis
Hanging Flexible in Tough Times
The slow economy and complex job market are prompting both employers and employees to consider more flexible work options.
Published: March 19, 2009
The slow economy and complex job market are prompting both employers and employees to consider more flexible work options. Although we have already addressed the topic of workplace flexibility previously, in light of today’s economic slump, it acquires new and forceful meaning. Therefore, the following article will review the importance and core concepts of flexibility in today’s workplace.
Work-life balance means effectively managing the juggling act between paid work and other activities that we also find important, including caregiving responsibilities, participation in family life, volunteerism, physical fitness, or programs of study. Increasingly, human-resources analysts view work-life balance as a priority for younger people newly entering the workforce, as well as a perfectly valid rationale for remodeling the workplace to raise the level of satisfaction and quality of life for workers in general. But in this recessionary environment, the concept of work-life balance also opens up novel possibilities for employers who are compelled like never before to find innovative ways of reorganizing their workplace to save costs, raise productivity, and manage workloads more efficiently.
Communicating With Staff About Change
The type of innovation we’re talking about sometimes requires significant changes to a workplace’s culture and the expectations of both management and staff. Accordingly, some progressive companies are experimenting with working groups that include representatives of both sides (and union representatives where applicable) to identify work-life balance issues from employee and business perspectives. Surveys, focus groups and interviews with staff are other practical sources of raw data on which to develop and implement mutually constructive change. Effective bilateral communication is also essential to ensure continued mutual co-operation and understanding.
Flexible Work Arrangements
One type of flexible work arrangement that may well become commonplace is phased retirement programs. Studies have shown that in future a significant number of organizations are expected to offer these programs, in which older employees work fewer hours as they approach retirement. We have suggested elsewhere that the value of these programs can be maximized by assigning retirees some training and mentoring activities directed at the employees who will eventually replace them or other more junior staff.
In recent months, however, the logistics of such strategic-planning measures may have changed. Because of the global economic turndown and the faltering value of investments, some people who formerly planned to retire soon find they are no longer able to do so. An advantage of this new circumstance is that more time is available for employers to recruit and prepare younger employees for positions they will assume when their predecessors retire. On the down side, however, the prospect of key personnel postponing their retirements makes it harder to implement the budgetary constraints that many employers require immediately.
Other flexible staffing arrangements that can potentially help employers meet their current need to economize while still robustly supporting services offered to clients, include:
- part-time work
- job sharing
- flexible hours
- compressed work schedules
- reduced work hours for reduced pay
- vacation buying & selling
- both paid & unpaid sabbatical leave
- shift rosters or shifts that appeal to a particular demographic; e.g., post-secondary students or parents of school-age children
Working From Home
Additionally, for a variety of reasons, more companies are also expected to offer employees the option of working from home. Statistics for the workplace in general show that the number of companies offering telecommuting will increase from 60% in 2006 to over 70% this year. In the past employers have already been making such devices as PDAs, cell phones, and Internet connections available to employees to facilitate working arrangements with more geographic range. But especially in the current economy, a company can realize significant cost savings and time-management improvements by judiciously implementing work-from-home arrangements.
Although work-from-home scenarios clearly won't succeed for all aspects of print workflow, they just may work well for a surprising number of job functions. Sales is the most obvious, but some of the front-end workflow management jobs could be facilitated off site as well. And while we don't advocate implementing remote access indiscriminately, it can certainly be used creatively in select instances to provide more coverage and better use of company resources, as well as a benefit to staff.
Flexible Compensation Packages
Compensation packages are another area where flexibility pays off. Since compensation does not involve only salary or wages, now is a good time for employers to leverage non-monetary rewards and to ensure that existing and potential employees clearly understand the value of what employers are offering over and above money. The better both sides understand their flexible options, the better their chances of striking a mutually satisfying and profitable arrangement.
Potentially the compensation "extras” on offer may include:
- fully paid company benefits
- capital accumulation plans (including defined-contribution registered pension plans, group retirement savings plans, deferred profit-sharing plans, and employer-matched defined savings plans)
- pension plans
- bonuses and incentives (Think about attaching incentives to solutions-based initiatives that will: increase productivity, reduce waste, improve workplace safety or environmental sustainability, devise new products or services, or communicate the company’s value more effectively to prospective clients.)
- education or training
- paid attendance at conferences, seminars, or other industry events
- stock options
- personal days off
- extended holiday time
- company car or car allowance that includes personal use
- company-paid or co-paid social activities (e.g., trips, seasonal parties, coffee, impromptu lunches, or other edible treats)
Grow-Your-Own Sales Force
Certain kinds of flexibility relate uniquely to specific jobs. Consider sales, for example. Ideally, company owners and managers want PrintLink to locate a new hire for them who walks in their door with a bag of business. While such circumstances certainly do arise occasionally, in the majority of cases we introduce employers instead to qualified sales people who require a sensible amount of initial ramp-up time to develop flourishing accounts. But as a further alternative, we may uncover other candidates who perhaps lack direct sales experience but who have demonstrated the potential to be groomed into successful sales staff. Such promising candidates definitely deserve the employer’s consideration as a flexible compromise.
It may encourage you to know that some versatile candidates with production backgrounds do tell us they would like to move into a sales job. One such career evolution sometimes also occurs naturally from customer service to sales. And while customer-service roles can be careers in their own right, certain ambitious CSRs with the right aptitudes may welcome the prospect of further professional advancement into selling.
Additionally, the sales role itself is assuming new dimensions. As companies opt to become business solutions providers instead of commodity printers, the task of business development becomes more complex. Accordingly, we are now seeing a division between "hunter” and "farmer” sales roles, with business development coming to be regarded as a stand-alone, salary-plus-bonus position. Once accounts are developed, they are then turned over to an account manager who maintains them. Not only does this two-part structure build business volume, but it can also offer employers more flexibility in hiring or developing salespeople with a variety of specialized aptitudes and functions. This type of diversified sales structure can also deliver a faster conversion from prospect to client--which makes it an especially desirable premise in challenging times. And our understanding of its dynamics enables us to identify each sales candidate’s specific strengths and advise you on how he or she can best contribute to the growth of your particular business.
Versatile Department Managers Wanted
As a second case study in flexibility, consider department supervisors or managers. Historically printing has been an industry that concentrates on managing work--not people and process. Yet as the industry continues to evolve, companies are increasingly recognizing that the emphasis also needs to be on human-resource management and process control--since that is how the work gets done most efficiently and profitably. They also want to hire people who have experience managing human resources and process control specifically in a print environment.
But the reality on the shop floor is that, when supervisors and managers have evolved from operators to hands-on forepersons, to supervisors, to managers, most often their companies have promoted but not trained them. PrintLink can work with employers to identify managers who are not only versed in how to crank work out the door but also how to get the best results from both technology and people.
Strong management and productivity initiatives are trends that had emerged previously in recent years, but we are now seeing them become action priorities in today’s slow economy. Initiatives addressing environmental sustainability are also becoming more mainstream, yielding improved productivity and cost savings along with ecological benefits. Thus strategic investments in managers to spearhead environmental initiatives provide still more opportunities for employers to foster their company’s long-term development.
On the other side of the coin, if you're an employee, these days you stand to benefit at least three ways from exercising flexibility when navigating your own career path:
Candidate tip # 1 - Think employer - not job
Identify vibrant companies that educate and train their employees and offer advancement from within. Once you have your foot in the door, you can strategically position yourself to get the training you need to get promoted into the position you really want or an even better one.
Warning: if you’re currently unemployed and just looking for any job to get you through, don’t fake an interest in building a long-term career with a company in the mistaken belief it will prompt the company to hire you. A savvy interviewer with good screening methods will easily recognize that you are not going to devote yourself to the job at hand but continue to look elsewhere. This goes double for PrintLink’s managers, who are strongly attuned to effecting successful long-term matches between employers and candidates.
On the other hand, right now we are finding that many unemployed job seekers themselves will scrutinize opportunities carefully for long-term fit. Because the present bad economy is expected to persist, some candidates are opting to make career compromises. But still others are resolutely declining positions that deviate from their chosen career path. As long as that career path is realistic (a deduction requiring prior review of many complex factors), then for candidates to decline less-than-ideal job offers can still represent a positive outlook.
Yet most people do need to work, so while waiting for optimum circumstances, there is nothing to stop candidates from considering positions that may be irregular or transitory. Who knows? The latter tactic may actually lead you in an entirely new direction down a desirable but previously unexplored career path.
Candidate tip # 2 - Consider relocating
To achieve your career goals, it may help you to be flexible about location or relocation. Note, however, that relocation especially is never to be taken lightly. It is a very major decision that may affect you and your family profoundly. And if you relocate for a specific company or position that doesn't work out, you’ll need a contingency plan that anticipates what your next strategic move will be.
Candidate tip # 3 – If all else fails, stay put
If you're looking for a job change but can't find one, consider staying in your current position for a while longer (if that's an option). Staying where you are enables you to regroup and reevaluate your career objectives and job-search approach. It can also buy you time for training, networking, or gaining additional work experience to propel you towards your long-term goals. (Of course, you need to balance your obligations to your current employer and your career-development activities appropriately.) When the economy improves, you may even find there are unexplored advancement possibilities within your present company. As everyone transitions toward economic recovery, employee/employer loyalty could well deliver previously unanticipated returns on both sides.
Generally speaking, to employers, an employee who has proven that he or she possesses an above-average level of flexibility can be a valuable asset, and one that should be highly respected and encouraged. In an evolving industry, people who are entrepreneurial by nature and adaptable by practice stand the best chance of contributing significantly to achieving the changing objectives of both the company and its clients. So in a flexible organization, the employees who are the most resilient can truly make the best prospects for long-term employees.
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