After my service-connected injuries went crazy in 2010 and my nerves decided I needed to be a “bobblehead doll,” I quickly realized there was a need for alternatives to commuting to an office every day and working as a traditional employee. However, alternatives to conventional employment continue to be few and far between, primarily due to the IRS in America. 2020 saw a breakout in other options to the traditional employment paradigm, and I would like to continue this discussion to generate more alternatives to conventional employment.
Olmstead and Smith (1989) wrote what I consider to be the quintessential and sentinel book on alternatives to traditional employment, “Creating a Flexible Workspace: How to Select and Manage Alternative Work Options.” Flexibility in the workplace is not just a Human Resources (HR) duty but is helped by having HR people with imaginations and who are empowered to be creative to keep good employees. Flexibility is not merely limited to a wide variety of work schedules which can be offered optionally. Flexibility in the workspace also includes on and off-site employment, and cross-training, as key fundamentals in empowering employees and driving workplace flexibility programs. But flexibility always begins with the realization that flexibility is a two-directional relationship between employer and employee and a means for enhancing the talents, skills, and abilities already hired as part of a dedicated appreciative inquiry desire to innovate.
Appreciative inquiry is a growth mechanism that states that they already have enough of what a business organization needs, provided they listen to their employees. Appreciative inquiry and common sense tell leaders who want to know and change their organization how and where to begin. Appreciative inquiry-based leadership is 6-continuous steps that start small and cycle to larger problems as momentum for excellence permeates through an organization. But the first step, just like in defeating a disabling addiction, is admitting there is a problem.
The six operational steps of appreciative inquiry:
- Admit there is a problem and commit to change.
- Define the problem.
- Discover the variables and stay focused on the positive.
- Dream BIG!
- Design the future and outline the steps to that future.
- Destiny, create the destination you desire.
Follow the instructions on a shampoo bottle, “Wash, Rinse, Repeat.” The appreciative inquiry model can be scaled, repeated, implemented into small or large teams, and produce motivated members who then become the force to building change. Allow yourself and your team to learn, this takes time, but through building motivation for excellence, time can be captured to perform.
Flexibility and Viability – Not just Terms, but Lifestyles
Flexibility in an organization is understood as accepting change and positively using that change to grow and develop more flexibility. Viability in an organization is where the continuing effectiveness of flexibility generates new growth markets and creates the organization’s potential to flex to meet the growth areas. Flexibility and viability are interlinked and interwoven ideas that every employee should be conscious of and striving to enhance personally as part of their brand.
Erroneously called “Employee Engagement,” flexibility and viability are the continued efforts of all employees to participate in the business’ success. Appreciative inquiry is the sum of the efforts to flex and be viable in competition with other businesses, recognizing that the answers to your current problems are always found in listening to employees. Please note, you can think your business is flexible enough, but when the winds of change blow, will your business collapse or grow?
For example, as a consultant and subject matter expert, I was called into a manufacturing company to improve flexibility. The company had been around for more than 100-years, and the owners, a family business, figured they were pretty flexible. From day one, though, it was apparent the business had stagnated, and there was no flexibility or viability left in the organization. When the 2008 market recession occurred, the company lost 5 of its 6 operating shifts and barely survived by draining all remaining liquidity to stay afloat. The company has limped along ever since, to the amazement of everyone who has worked at this facility.
Hence, one must understand the principles of viability, flexibility, and appreciative inquiry as a lifestyle of daily choices where the leadership is engaged in and listening to employees. Failure to listen remains the number one reason businesses, and governments fail. Who should governments be listening to; average citizens, not statisticians, not special interest groups, not lawyers and political cronies, the people who voted them into power. Who should businesses be listening to; their employees, not customers, not vendors, not shareholders, all of whom need to have a voice, but the front-line employee has answers.
Realities versus Fiction
Having worked with many a small businessperson across the continental US, the smaller a business understands the need to listen to employees, but the bigger a company becomes, the less desire they have to listen to anyone, let alone employees. This is a reality.
The fiction is the proclamation that the customer should be listened to, the shareholders know what the business needs, or the vendors have essential information for the company. While all have a seat at the table, the front-line employees remain a wealth of information generally untapped, unused, and depressingly denied the ability to help. As a consultant, I spend most of my time listening to the employees, then presenting their ideas to management. I have never claimed another employee’s ideas as mine and never will. Yet, I know too many consultants whose ethical and professional brands might be slightly less demanding than my behavior standards. This also is reality, watch the ethics of a consultant; if they waiver, there is duplicity nearby!
Creating Flexibility in the Workplace
As an industrial and organizational psychologist, I affirm in a language most somber that no single tool will be a “magic bullet” for fixing employee concerns and building flexibility and viability. Holistic solutions are not just a current “buzzword,” but an actual truth. The solutions must grow from an apt quote from Captain Jack Sparrow:
“The only rules that really matter are these: what a man can do and what a man can’t do. For instance, you can accept that your father was a pirate and a good man, or you can’t. But pirate is in your blood, boy, so you’ll have to square with that someday. And me, for example, I can let you drown, but I can’t bring this ship into Tortuga all by me onesies, savvy? So, can you sail under the command of a pirate, or can you not” [emphasis mine]?
What can your company do, and what can your company not do? Between these two extremes are a lot of different possibilities, opportunities, and areas for exploration. For example, as a call center, can you home shore your agents? Maybe the technology is there, but are the legal questions regarding data security and safety open to home shoring? What about contingent employment, where you use knowledge vendors to fill in during peak times, thus allowing your call center to flex off and not have to work overtime so much? Would your call center do well with phased retirement, partial retirement, or voluntary reduced work time programs?
Each of these options builds flexibility and viability, but they come with consequences, and the valuation of those consequences should include input from the front-line employees. For example, a call center I am familiar with used to have stepped departments, where a rep could learn the basics, then promote into the next higher step.
Except, the model was broken by HR, and the depth of available personnel dried up. Thus, the call center went to a universal agent model, where all agents were expected to know all the different departments and steps and act accordingly. The universal model was sold as a cost-saving measure. The employees did not like the new model as all the business processes were built on the old stepped agent model. The universal model failed, the company could not afford to return to the stepped model, and knowledge was walking out the door at an exceeding pace.
The answer was to listen to the front-line employees, but it took more than five years and ten different consulting firms and technology firms to reach this point. But the cost of lost potential sales and lost business knowledge is still hindering this company from a full recovery. Why; because the change that broke the company has never been fixed, just plastered over, and the universal agent approach destroyed organizational trust between employees and the employer. Decisions have consequences, and if you do not know what your company can do, you do not know what your company cannot do; especially, if you refuse to listen to the front-line employees.
What will your employees do? What are your employees already capable of doing if provided the opportunity? Where is the focus in your company, customers, vendors, shareholders, or employees? Why? Who of your employees can you absolutely trust to accomplish a task? How do you know that employee is trustworthy? What makes that employee happy to return to work every day?
When you listen to your employees, honestly and openly communicate with them, and know the why to share the why your employees can work marvels you could not believe possible. If you desire flexibility and viability in your company, build it! One employee at a time using imagination, honest communication, and build organizational trust. You will be surprised at how often the answer to improving your company doesn’t have a dollar sign but a living person and a debt of gratitude.
Olmsted, B., & Smith, S. (1989). Creating a flexible workplace: How to select and manage alternative work options. American Management Association (AMACOM).
© 2021 M. Dave Salisbury
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