Are You Flexible?

The one issue that I am hearing from nearly all of the small businesses I work with right now is employees.  That is, hiring new employees and holding onto the employees you have, in order to take advantage of some of the business growth we’ve been seeing in the past few months.

How do you compete against the larger employers with their high hourly salaries?  How do you find younger employees who are willing to come into work regularly when the whole world seems to want to work remotely?

It seems to me the key here is flexibility.  But to many business owners, flexibility feels too much like the owner bending over backwards to do anything she or he can do to entice employees to actually show up and get work done.

Employee Flexibility Data

Some of the latest statistics clearly demonstrate the importance of paying attention to what prospective employees are looking for:

  • From the New York Times: Employers expect that “at least 20 percent of Americans’ workdays would be from home even after the pandemic.”
  • From Forbes: Ninety-seven percent of employees and entrepreneurs surveyed don’t want to return to the office full-time.
  • A Verizon small business survey: Sixty-three percent of small business owners are “utilizing digital tools and technologies to change business processes and customer experiences” as a result of COVID – which can lead to more flexibility in hours or job tasks.
  • According to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce: “Over the next decade, 22% of skilled manufacturing workers will retire, and the industry is projected to be two million workers short of its need.”
  • Inventory Management journal IMPO indicates that: Over half of manufacturing employees “want their company to offer more flexible work options.”
  • From Linked In: “Remote work opportunities as of August were capturing 30.2% of all applications to paid U.S. job postings on LinkedIn” as compared to 9.8% in August 2020.

My Flexibility Story

More than a few years ago, when my kids were young, I took a job teaching at the Business School of a public university in my town.  At the time, I thought it was the perfect way to give me the flexibility I needed with two young kids.  Summers off!  Two days a week with no classes to teach!  All my classes done before the bus drops off my kindergartener!  What could be better?

Turns out, teaching at the college level was WAY less flexible than I thought.  The classes I taught may have only been from 9am – 2pm Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays, but my working hours extended way beyond that.  And with 180 students plus committees to join, research to undergo, new content to create, and students to advise, I found that I had very little time that was unscheduled.

On top of that, even though I had off on Tuesdays, Thursdays, and summers, I had literally NO flexibility at all during the school year on the days I taught. If my preschooler was sick, then my four classes for the day all had to be cancelled, messing up my carefully planned syllabus and testing schedule.  When my husband started traveling for work about 50% of the time, I was faced with the challenge of juggling all of this with little back up options.  This was ultimately one of the key reasons I ended up leaving my full-time role at the University and starting my consulting business.

WFH Flexibility

As a solopreneur who works from home, I have way more flexibility in my schedule, which worked perfectly for me when the kids were in school.  And now that I’m an empty nester, I can work as much as I want, which is a benefit and a curse.

But when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, I was already a pro at Zoom, had a fully tricked out home office, and my work picked up significantly as I worked to help small business owners navigate their “new normal”.  And as I continue to grow my small business, my focus is on being time and location independent as much as possible.  For me that means I can work from any location and minimize the number of Zoom calls while increasing my value online and asynchronously.

Working from home – or really working remotely from anywhere – is certainly a huge benefit for many people.  It provides the flexibility they are looking for to manage kids’ schedules, fit in a doctor’s appointment or a workout, and still get a full 8 hours of work done.  If you have employees who don’t have to be at work, giving them some flexibility in where they do their work can be of huge value to them.  And as COVID-19 shut down offices, most of the research (like here, here, and here) has shown that employees were at least as productive at home if not more so.

Small Business Options

Of course, I have the advantage of being a solopreneur, so I am only responsible for my own schedule. That is not the case for most small businesses who depend on their employees to get the work done.  And if you own a store or a manufacturing facility, it’s not really possible (or practical) to let your employees work from home.

But if you are currently struggling with either hiring or retaining help, then now is the time to investigate new and different ways to provide some flexibility to your employees.  As a matter of fact, this could provide you with a competitive advantage over larger employers in your area.

The key is to learn what kind of flexibility your employees are looking for.  If they work at a machine shop, they likely have no interest in working from home or they would have picked a different job.  And many hourly employees are more than happy to leave their work at work and save home for their free time.  And some employees just do not do well working independently at home without supervision, direction, or the companionship of co-workers.

What are some alternatives to working remotely that can help your employees feel some sense of control over their day?  Rather than running one 9-5 shift, could you offer two overlapping shifts with the ability to pick which one works best?  Or could you offer 4 days on, 3 days off to give workers a weekday off?  Are there some tasks that could be done at home rather than work?  Maybe they can come in 3 days a week, and work from home 2?  Even before COVID hit, there have been some great studies on how to offer flexibility in a manufacturing setting, such as this Workflex and Manufacturing Guide from SHRM in 2015, and this 2012 article from Industry Week.

Your Flexibility Story

You know what is so great about owning your own business?  You are in charge of how it runs.  There are no corporate policies coming from the home office telling you when to open or close your plant or how to manage your staff.  You make the rules.  You can offer as much or as little flexibility to you and your team as is practical while still running a profitable business.

And many of you are already doing that.  It can be much easier to ask a small business owner for a couple hours off for a dentist appointment or to see your kid play the recorder at the afternoon Elementary Music Show.   And with a small team, you all become more like a work family, which helps your employees feel appreciated and valued – and not afraid to ask if they need time off now and again.

But in this current world of hiring challenges, it is important that your employees recognize how good they have it compared to the larger employers that may be trying to lure them away from your business.  If you are interviewing someone for a position – or trying to keep someone from leaving – make sure they understand how flexible their job might be with you vs a larger employer with inflexible shifts and no time off available mid-day.

There are always flexibility options, and small businesses can and should be leading the way.


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