The business world has long had a love-hate relationship with flexible work arrangements. Nearly 80 percent of workers claim they want more access to flexible work options and would use them if there were no negative career consequences, according to a report compiled by the Georgetown University Law Center.
Employees report that flexible work options — such as job sharing, part-time work, flex schedules, compressed work hours and telecommuting — improve their work-life balance. However, recent decisions by high-profile companies, such as Yahoo and Best Buy, to overhaul or eliminate their flexible work programs demonstrate that there is still much ambivalence about the effectiveness of flexible work options.
In this contentious climate, where there is often a gap between what employees want and employers need, small businesses are emerging as leaders in the flexible work movement. According to the 2014 National Study of Employers, which surveyed more than a 1,000 employers, small businesses allow employees more control over the hours they work.
Investing in employees
The founders of Group PMX, a New York-based consulting company that specializes in project and construction management, have adopted such an approach. In fact, all of Group PMX’s business is conducted from remote locations. The company does not have a central office for its 20 employees. Its human resources manager works from home full-time, and all other employees are based on-site at clients' locations and move from project to project as needed.
"There are many firms with large office spaces in midtown Manhattan and no one there because they are out where the clients are,” said Farid Cardozo, president and chief operating officer of Group PMX. By growing its employee base without being limited by physical boundaries, Group PMX is staying ahead of national trends. In fact, a recent study by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College shows that workplace flexibility, though offered in some capacity by many companies, is still out of reach for most employees.
By not being confined to the traditional office structure, Group PMX did not need to purchase, rent or renovate an office space. "We took the money saved from real estate and reinvested it in our employees in the form of a great benefits package," said Michael Giaramita, the company's CEO. As a result, Giaramita said, Group PMX is able to offer benefits that are on a par with those of much larger firms in its industry. Such benefits include competitive salaries, full health care, vision, dental, a 401(k) plan with a 4 percent company match and 17 paid days off. "Of course, all this is great for retention and recruitment, but it all started with being flexible," Cardozo added. [What Your Workers Want ... It's More Than Money]
Without a central office, Group PMX has looked for other ways to keep its people connected. All new employees meet with the HR manager prior to starting, and Cardozo and Giaramita travel to job sites regularly to meet with their employees as well as the clients.
"We don't micromanage, but it's our job to be extremely approachable so people who don't see us every day can still feel comfortable telling us what is going on," Cardozo said. Cardozo and Giaramita recounted how when their part-time bookkeeper expressed an interest in full-time work, they were able to transition her into the role of human resources manager, which still provided her with the flexibility to work from home.
The firm also hosts quarterly meetings, where all the employees come together to socialize, learn about new marketing initiatives and gain insight into the state of the firm and upcoming projects.
"We also invite potential hires," Giaramita said. "This way, they can meet everyone and see if we are a good fit. Once they see the energy in the room, they are usually hooked."
Staying in control
One reason many companies have been resistant to adopting flexible work arrangements is that they're afraid of losing control over their work environment. Employers report worrying about the potential abuse of flexible working arrangements, a decrease in employee productivity and difficulty in managing people in remote locations. Giaramita and Cardozo, however, find that technology provides a more-than-adequate solution to these concerns.
"It is key to invest in IT if you are going to offer a significant level of workplace flexibility," Giaramita said. Group PMX provides all its employees with iPhones, state-of-the art laptops and iPads as needed. In addition to using email for daily communication, Group PMX makes use of Web tools such as Replicon, a cloud-based timesheet and expense management system; Egnyte, a file storage and management system that can access files for any project from any device, from anywhere in the world; and Evernote, a software designed for note-taking and archiving that helps manage the firm's marketing needs. These systems make it seamless to submit invoices and timesheets, get paid on time, and communicate with colleagues and clients.
Ultimately, the degree of flexibility that each company can provide is shaped by the unique nature of its business, but Cardozo and Giaramita believe that many of the strategies that have worked for them can be adapted to meet the needs of all sorts of workplaces. In their experience, establishing flexibility as part of the company culture and not just as an accommodation is key, as is investing in IT and prioritizing ongoing and open communication with employees and clients. Additionally, they've benefited from eliminating the need for a central office and have been able to reinvest the savings to benefit their employees.
"With flexibility at our core, we've been able to excel at what we do and not miss a beat," Giaramita said.