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Leadership Creating a flexible workplace that addresses stresses outside the job is critical to your organization’s success

Soula Courlas is national partner, Grace Ayoub is eastern Canada partner and Stavros Demetriou is director of KPMG in Canada’s People and Change practice.

Workers today face a multitude of stresses, both on and off the job, that can have a negative impact on their performance. It is no longer good enough for an employer to look at work issues in isolation. The overall performance of your organization requires you to understand all of the stresses and find ways to help your employees address them.

Stressors include work demands, family care, finances, education, fear of missing out and information overload amplified by omnipresent technology. The impact a specific stress puts on a person will vary depending upon several factors, but no matter what they are, they are a drain on the personal resources of your employees.

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Right now, our work force has the widest age range in history. Five demographic cohorts now work together, with the bulk of our employees being millennials. Each generational cohort brings a diverse set of styles, expectations, perceptions and responsibilities to work every day. What is important to a Gen Xer may not resonate with a millennial, and what the millennial may seek from work may seem unreasonable to a boomer.

Organizations that understand and effectively manage the unique priorities and stresses felt by different generations of its work force will optimize their talent and leverage the clear benefits that come from such a diverse group of perspectives and capabilities. Those who ignore the differences and apply a one-size-fits-all approach will inevitably miss the mark.

But the reality is that the policies and practices of most organizations tend to be less flexible than we’d like. In many cases, they were based on the values, culture, socioeconomic and generational influences of the leadership at the time the organization was established and reinforced the priority to ensure consistent treatment across the organization.

But today, just as organizations are focused on being increasingly nimble to address new competitors and the impact of innovation, so too do they need to bring flexibility to how they interact with their employees. Moving from standardization to individualization while maintaining fair and equitable treatment is the course of action required. Creating a flexible environment is not always easy, but is imperative to providing employees with the conditions to manage through growing personal pressures and still thrive at work.

HIGH DEMAND FOR FLEXIBLE SCHEDULES

A recent report by insurer MetLife found that 71 per cent of employees say flexible work schedules are the No. 1 factor that would help them balance responsibilities at work and at home. But we have found that in many more traditional organizations, there is still an unconscious bias that favours being in the office, coming in early and leaving late. And, even in organizations that offer some flexibility, if it is not fully embraced by the organization, it can actually make things worse.

Ironically, research by HR consulting firm Mercer found that 40 per cent of employees worry that flexible work arrangements will damage their career prospects. And in many organizations where the real culture does not embrace flexibility, that may actually be the case. The result is that many employees who would benefit from alternate work arrangements don’t feel secure raising it with their manager. This ends up affecting productivity and may cause good employees to look elsewhere for work.

Today, employees need that flexibility more than ever. Nearly half (47 per cent) of employees in their 40s and 50s are being squeezed by increased responsibilities to take care of both their young children and aging parents. With Canadians increasingly tending to have children later in life, we can expect this number to grow in the coming years.

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Not surprisingly, some 40 per cent of those in the “sandwich generation” are looking for another job, in many cases to help them find that balance. And we are increasingly seeing high-performing people turn down promotions or even leave jobs for lower paying/less stressful ones because they believe scaling back is the only way to manage through all the demands.

Many of the organizations we talk to are beginning to embrace the idea of flexibility but are wrestling with the challenges. We believe that to truly make this work, it is important that organizations engage their employees to determine the degree of flexibility that is important to them. Again, with five cohorts in the work force, there won’t be a single view of what flexibility looks like.

If your company is grappling with this issue that’s affecting your bottom line, here are a few actions to consider:

  1. Listen to your employees. Conduct regular employee surveys and focus groups. Promote open dialogue between employees and managers and a transparent feedback mechanism that allows employees to suggest creative solutions to balance their non-work commitments.
  2. Shift to a flexible mindset and commitment. Determine areas in which flexible work arrangements can be implemented to address generational needs and support work-life integration (as defined and shaped by your employees).
  3. Examine the strength of your employer brand. Promote how you support your employees. For example, consider offering initiatives that will encourage a return of employees that might have decided to leave a certain career in exchange for favourable work hours.
  4. Look inward at practices that inadvertently add more stress. Empowering employees without appropriate authority, undefined decision-making models, lack of clarity in roles, responsibilities and performance measures all cause stress.
  5. Embrace inclusivity – it’s the only way. Build a strong, inclusive culture that fosters candour, collaboration and understanding, which contributes to positive morale.
  6. Be leaders in this space. Build a diverse and inclusive leadership team representative of your work force. Encourage leaders who actively promote the flexible mindset. Train frontline leaders and management to embed a flexible mindset.
  7. Drive an empathic culture. The Harvard Business Review found that the 10 most empathetic companies increased in value more than twice as much as those at the bottom of the index and generated 50 per cent more earnings. Research also shows that 90 per cent of employees are more likely to stay with an organization that empathizes with their needs.

Recognizing that a multigenerational work force inherently brings multigenerational dynamics is not new. What’s new is the pace and degree to which leaders need to review, refresh and recalibrate their practices and beliefs to truly create a workplace that enables employees to contribute their best as life and work intersect.

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