70% of Employees Want Flexibility but Some CEOs Just Won't Listen. What to Do?
I recently visited a potential client at a privately owned, midsize financial services firm. It has been around for many years and has a very conservative business and people's management approach. I spoke at length with a very passionate HR leader there, who was trying to convince the very traditional leadership team to make some cultural changes (including formalizing a diversity and inclusion policy). Despite all research pointing to the fact that they should adapt, as well as clients pushing them to introduce more progressive policies, they were reluctant. The firm was doing great in terms of financial returns and had relatively low turnover. Moreover, the founder held very strongly beliefs about the right management style. There was little incentive to change. One particular thing I was surprised to learn was that they had no flexibility policy and zero tolerance to work from home even though they had a generous compensation package. According to a study by Ernst and Young with 9,400 adults across 8 countries, "After competitive pay and benefits, the top things employees say are very important in a potential job are: “being able to work flexibly and still be on track for promotion.” Gallop's "State of The American Workplace" Report based on survey with 195k employees (!!) found similar outcomes with "greater work-life balance and better personal well-being" coming only second after "the ability to do what they do best" in terms of what employees were now looking for in their future jobs. Yet, this leadership team was so against flexibility in hours, work location, dress code, etc. In their new book, New Power: How Power Works in Our Hyperconnected World - and How to Make it Work for You, Jeremy Heimans and Henry Timms talk about how technology, demographic trends and shifting values have changed the dynamic through which individuals interact with power. They gives an array of case studies from politics and business to illustrate how our ways of doing things continue to change and call leaders to pay attention and adapt to these new rules of the game or be left out.
I was really curious as to how this company was able to maintain high retention rates with the existence of so much transparency about other options and a pretty hot job market these days. Theoretically, their employees were highly educated, smart and had a lot to offer to other employers, why were they sticking around? I started reading their Glassdoor reviews, and interestingly, "formal culture", "conservative dress code", and criticism of the management's top-down style kept popping out. Only 56% of reviewers approved of CEO.
This made me wonder if one day, their slow pace of change will catch up to them, as it had happened to many good companies who refused to adapt their culture and company strategy (remember, Kodak?). I share this story with you because I believe that change is difficult: it takes time and it requires the right kind of leadership, market conditions, as well as advocates to support it. We can all drive smaller scale changes in our own environments, or partner with progressive leaders and help them in this difficult task. And, we can always seek other more favorable, environments where we can make a bigger difference.
Where Do We Go From Here? In this particular leader's case, I couldn't offer many more tools beyond what she had already tried (which was a lot), but I do believe there were two additional actions she could take to increase her power: 1. Develop senior leader ambassadors: rather than put all her energy into convincing the CEO, feed arguments and give support to others on the executive committee who may have the CEO's ears on other business matters 2. Bring in an external expert/s: sometimes it's harder to communicate certain sensitive topics from within. This is when a neutral observer can come in and get more traction. It kind of sucks to have the same information be repeated by an external party and then be better received by the people with whom you work so closely but we can sacrifice some ego to achieve the needed results.