The HR Strategist | Gaining Leadership Buy-in on Work Schedule Flexibility Initiatives

I’ve given two speeches in two weeks on the great talent transformation. My main point is that extreme demographic changes like 49 straight years of below replacement birth rates, combined with the great resignation and the reprioritization that kicked into high gear after COVID is reducing the pool of available talent, requiring employers to figure out how to do more work with fewer people. In fact, CNN just reported today that 2023 saw the lowest birth rate in the U.S. in over a century!!   

The talent challenge is forcing more employers to increase their employment value proposition and specifically add in more flexibility. Survey after survey shows that employees at all levels want more flexibility at work. A new Deloitte survey found a staggering 94% of professional employees expressed the desire for more work schedule flexibilityIn Catapult’s 2024 National Business Trends Survey, executives reported the number one thing employees are looking for is competitive pay, though that was followed closely by Work-Life Balance / Flexibility in Hours. There were almost double the votes for work life and schedule flexibility than pay. Yet, in the same survey, over 50% of employers do not offer any form of hybrid work.   

Why do half of employers not provide flexibility in work schedules?    

By far the most popular thing I hear when I speak to audiences around the region is some version of “our industry requires employees to be in person.” Clearly, many industries require employees to be in person including manufacturing, distribution, healthcare, skilled trades, etc. While true, many professional service jobs in those industries can easily accommodate a hybrid or remote work schedule. You can greatly expand your talent pool and improve retention by allowing many of your professional service employees to work a hybrid or remote work schedule.   

One Plant Manager told me he would have a war on his hands if he allowed the “office staff” to work remotely while production employees had to come to work every dayFirst, the key thing here that employees want is flexibility. I’m not advocating for fully remote, just flexibility, be that a hybrid schedule, or the ability to shift around schedules based on need. I would strongly caution against the we must be 100% consistent” mentality. It’s extremely limiting and unrealistic. Fair and reasonable is a better standard. I recall from my manufacturing days the difficulty we had in promoting production employees into staff. Most assumed the office staff got additional perks and when they found the contrary, combined with less total compensation due to reduced overtime they passed. We have many manufacturers, for example, who have also layered in more flexibility for production employees. Several have layered in many more shift schedule options to accommodate different lifestyle needs. Others allow shift swappingMuch has been written about Amazon’s shift swap app that enables employees to swap shifts with not that much notice. Others have relaxed some attendance guidelines to allow more flexibility. Others are using recent retirees to provide buffers around the start and end of shifts.   

My thirty years working in multiple industries have taught me that employees expect and understand that work schedules will look different across the organization. Not offering flexibility to the accounting team solely because the warehouse team may get upset is based on a false narrative. My advice is to get creative, survey your employees on their interests, involve employees in the conversation, and I’m confident you can find a solution that works for your organization (accounting and the warehouse in my earlier example). Make this change with employees and not to employees and you’ll find greater acceptance. 

This brings me to the next thing I hear frequently: “My CEO wants EVERYONE back in the office, PERIOD!” No flexibility, no accounting for role, or turnover, or anything. I had an executive recently tell me “We didn’t have or need flexibility in my day, and we don’t need it now! I wish you all would quit talking about it!” I get it, and as a later Gen X’er myself, I would prefer to be in the office [though honestly not every day]. I’ve jokingly told many members I’ll trade my HR services for an office, as we are now mostly virtual at Catapult [that’s]. I also believe culture can be built better in person. However, my generation is in the fourth quarter of our careers. Boomers are a few years away from being mostly retired. We have to recognize that the most prevalent theories of work, be it schedule, the 5-day work week, 8-5, etc. were mostly born in the 1920s with Henry Ford. If we are to remain relevant and attractive to the workers of tomorrow, we must consider some changes.   

Consider the following for making the flexibility pitch to leadership or CEO:

  1. Understand their perspective. To make the flexibility pitch to a CEO or leadership team allergic to any work schedule changes, you must first understand the CEO’s / Leadership Team’s perspective. What are their priorities and concerns? One helpful way to frame this issue is in a four-quadrant model we teach in our learning classes at Catapult to clearly define problems. What’s working, what’s not working, what’s confusing, and what’s missing with your current state? The pitch will not work if it’s just a one-sided “employee-friendly” approach that doesn’t consider all angles 
  2. Gather your internal data. What does your annual employee pulse survey say on the matter of flexibility? If you’re not doing a survey, call Catapult now for assistance. What do your exit interview and turnover data tell you? Again, not doing either, call Catapult. Start working with your CFO to gather cost data around these measurable impacts of a lack of flexibility. Get the CFO on board and you stand a much better chance of influencing the leadership team. What if you find that your specific data doesn’t show a need or interest in flexibility? Take a look at your data broken out by demographics. Maybe certain populations have different needsMaybe your pitch needs to be more about your future workplace.     
  3. Talk to others on your leadership team to gather their opinions and thoughts on the matter of flexibility. There is an outside chance several are in support of the concept. You may find interest in a pilot project in a particular area, especially from leaders who have lost key staff or are having trouble finding staff due to the lack of flexibility.
  4. Create a written proposal. This is too big of an issue for a hallway conversation, and you want the idea to be taken seriously. Again, I strongly recommend you co-author the pitch with another leadership team member, preferably the CFO. A united front can strengthen your case and demonstrate widespread support for the initiative. Include the specific options you’re proposing, such as remote work, flexible hours, job sharing, or compressed workweeks. Detail how these options will be implemented, monitored, and evaluated for effectiveness. 
  5. Highlight the benefits. Clearly articulate the advantages of flexible work arrangements for the company including how it can attract top talent, improve employee morale and well-being, increase productivity, reduce turnover, and potentially save costs on office space and utilities. It also makes the company more adaptable and resilient, especially in times of crisis or change. It can enable employees to better balance work and personal responsibilities, leading to increased loyalty and commitment to the company. Include your supporting internal data from above. If your CEO reads any business publication regularly or attends association or chamber meetings, your pitch won’t be the first thing he or she has heard on the matter of flexibility.
  6. Anticipate and address likely concerns. Also anticipate and address likely concerns such as decreased collaboration, accountability, inequity among departments, or potential impact on client relationships. Offer solutions or compromises to mitigate these concerns, such as implementing communication tools or setting clear performance metrics. 
  7. Share success stories and case studies of other companies in similar industries. Share success stories or case studies from other companies in similar industries that have implemented flexible work arrangements successfully. Real-life examples can help illustrate the benefits and reassure the CEO that it’s a viable option. The new Catapult online community is a great place to gather stories and meet other professionals from your industry. As one keynote speaker said at our 2024 HR Conference last week, “The solution to every problem you face or opportunity you want to achieve is sitting here in this room. You must have the courage to get up and ask for it!!”   

In the meeting with the CEO, you want to be confident but also flexible and patient with a change of this magnitude. Again, we may be changing a work schedule developed 100 years ago. Listen to the CEO’s feedback and be open to adjusting your proposal based on their input. Persistence and patience are key when advocating for organizational change. Consider a pilot program to test the effectiveness of flexible work arrangements. We did that at Catapult after the pandemic subsided. It allows for experimentation without a long-term commitment and provides an opportunity to gather feedback and adjust as needed. 

The resistance to hybrid or remote work is puzzling when countless studies show the benefits of a flexible work model. Trying this steady approach at your organization will increase the chances you can start down the road to flexible work. On the other hand, the hill may be too steep for your leadership team at this time. One good thing about the uncertainty and constant change in the business world today, much like North Carolina weather, if you don’t like the temperature now, it will likely be different tomorrow.   

Try it, and as always if we can help, please reach out! 

Written by Chief Solutions Officer, Doug Blizzard, SPHR, SHRM-SCP.