There’s a lot of talk around “workplace flexibility,” and almost everyone wants more flexible work, but when it comes down to it, what does that really mean? Recently I talked with Cali Yost, who describes herself as a flexible workplace strategist, about workplace flexibility. Yost helps organizations weave flexibility into their cultures to keep them on the path toward business goals. “I help them create a high-performance flexible work culture,” she says.

Dan Snyder

For example, Yost worked with Marcee Harris Schwartz, who oversaw flexibility at BDO U.S.A., to normalize the flexibility the company said it offered. The project involved an internal campaign to educate employees about flexibility — what it looked like, what the benefits were and, most importantly, how senior leaders supported it. At the beginning of the initiative, only a third of employees said they believed that “employees who are on a management or leadership track have the option to move off that track and back on it when they are ready.” Five years later, that number was at two-thirds of employees.

How can companies be truly flexible? Yost shared insights I think will be helpful for any leader.

Policies Aren’t Practice

When people hear “flexibility,” they often assume that means working from home, Yost says. But the question for employees needs to be, what will you achieve with that flexibility? “Flexibility isn’t its own thing — it’s a means to an end. Maybe someone doesn’t need to work from home; maybe they just want a shift in hours. Managers must address those default assumptions and instead see flexibility as a means to accomplish goals.”

Organizations often have trouble making their flexibility policies a strong reality. “Most already are flexible,” she says. “The problem is there just isn’t a strategy, and the flexibility isn’t realizing its potential for either people or the business.”

The main reason, she says, is that workplace flexibility is often seen as something HR should manage. And when HR runs an employee flexibility program, if often turns into a policy, which means it turns into rules instead of a culture or mindset. Instead, the people who have a better handle on flexibility strategies are often those who are driving it on the frontline in the business, Yost says.

Senior line leaders are often the first to see the potential of flexibility. They’re ready to make it happen and are looking for the tools to do so. For example, facilities managers may realize that while dense or open office spaces are good for cost savings, they aren’t always useful to employees. They may push for hybrid work models that include flexibility. CIOs who are on top of the transformational potential of technology may be the first to see that the company doesn’t have the kind of culture that can leverage the devices, apps and platforms effectively.

HR can definitely be a part of this equation, Yost says, but when everyone is involved cross-functionally and collaboratively, it’s easier to establish a strategy instead of simply a policy.

Supporting Flexibility, Not Granting It

Once you introduce flexibility strategically into your culture, Yost says the biggest change is that employees take control of their work and life. She just helped a financial services company run a six-week flexibility pilot program. At the end, they asked managers and employees about any change in productivity. Three-quarters of managers said it stayed the same, and one-quarter said it increased; out of employees, 36 percent said it increased, while 64 percent said it stayed the same.

“Even though the program was only six weeks, there was a difference,” Yost says. “After changing how and when and where people were working, there was a pretty significant increase, and more importantly, no one thought productivity went down.”

When people are granted flexibility in when and where they do their work, they’re more intentional about their getting their job done, she says. The key is to give everyone involved the tools to succeed, whether that’s through technology, better planning, communication or clearer tasks.

“Managers can’t give people flexibility; they can only support it,” she says. “It begins with the individual.”

On-Demand Employees: A Flexible Solution for the Next Generation

As companies use workplace flexibility more strategically, the door opens to more on-demand staffing, which is obviously changing employee track models, Yost says. If all of a sudden some on-demand staff members join the company, it can cause conflict or confusion if the organization hasn’t done a good job integrating them into the broader flexible culture.

Organizations that are already flexible with employees will find it easier to bring in on-demand talent as they need it -- the consultants who join them will fit in more easily, and permanent employees will accommodate these changes much more smoothly.

Yost says leaders need to understand this concept of flexibility better if they want to recruit and retain millennials, and if they want to take advantage of on-demand talent. “MIllennials will not work for you if you make them come in every day to the same place at the same time. And when you use on-demand talent as a component of your workforce, that injects flexibility into your culture automatically. So you have to be ready and be strategic.”

It doesn’t meant that baby boomers and Gen Xers don’t want flexibility, Yost says. “It’s just that for millennials, it’s second nature, or the default. For boomers and Gen Xers, it’s perhaps a newer thing. If you give them training to be thoughtful and flexible about how, when and where they can work, they’ll jump on and think it’s great. Millennials are already coming to the table flexible. You just need to ensure they use it thoughtfully and intentionally as well.”