Where Hours Aren't Everything

This post originally appeared on the Great Place to Work blog on March 29. High Peaks Group founder Paul Thallner is the author.

Leading firms prove ambition and balance can coexist

One surprise from our recent ranking of the Best Workplaces for Flexibility was the nature of most companies on the list. Of the 50 winning organizations, more than half do businesses in information technology, professional services and finance – fields where long hours and career ambition often go hand in hand. These organizations aren't just instructive for the benefits they use to promote work-life balance, they also showcase cultures where driven professionals feel comfortable using them.

Much of their success in this area comes down to the mutual trust and respect between employee and organization. Surveys show that people in these workplaces feel trusted to accomplish their jobs, regardless of when or where the work takes place. As one employee at technology consulting firm Intellinet says, "Hours are very flexible and immediate management has a lot of confidence in me to get the job done right." When that means working into the evening to meet a client's needs, the firm demonstrates it has a stake in non-exempt employees' time by paying consultants an extra $50 for every billable hour over 80 in a two-week period. Not only does this provide an incentive to keep hours in check, it demonstrates that the firm values its team members' personal lives.

Even as they approach flexibility in different ways, companies on the list also customize their benefits to the unique needs of their workforces. At Big Four audit firm PwC, for example, time-off policies reflect the diversity of its 41,000 U.S. employees. Team members are not limited to a set number of paid sick days, and that time can be used to care for ailing children, partners or parents. Maternity and paternity leave are also shaped by individual employees, with the option to take six consecutive weeks off or three weeks of intermittent leave over the course of a full year. "The firm provides the opportunity for you to progress at your pace, provides continuous learning opportunities and challenges, allows personal flexibility when needed and the firm support of personal issues," says one PwC colleague.

The emphasis on professional development is another critical component of a flexible workplace. At companies on the list, 86 percent of employees say promotions go to those who most deserve them, compared to 79 percent at peer companies certified by Great Place to Work. Creating a level playing field offers employees the freedom to explore career options laterally or to adjust the pace of their career progression as life events happen. Mentoring opportunities, as well, offer professionals clarity on the best way to reach their career goals while incorporating the demands of a growing family or other obligations at home.

Creating the ideal flexible workplace is highly context-specific. So, there is no playbook for perfect flexibility. In order to create an environment where employees feel that their work and home lives can be more integrated, companies need to adopt a flexibility mindset. That is, avoid the temptation to copy other companies' best practices. Instead, be flexible in your thinking, get to know the needs of your employees, put their needs in the context of your workplace, and try new things. Finally, make your programs and practices widely - if not universally - available and safe for employees to use.

Few firms illustrate the potential of efforts to create a flexible, high-trust workplace quite like Ryan LLC. Following the resignation of a key manager in 2008, this tax services firm's leadership completely overhauled its approach to scheduling and assessment. Where before the firm's expectations for employees centered on hours worked, they're now defined by job responsibilities alone. Personal days are unlimited, and the firm leaves scheduling and telecommuting options up to employees, so long as they meet clearly stated goals for client service and financial performance. Even receptionists can shift their schedules as needed if they work together to ensure the phones are answered. Says on employees: "Ryan's flexible work environment allows me to do my job regardless of where I work or what hours I work. I have a geographically dispersed family, and my personal commitments have required that I work from multiple states. Ryan's global network of offices makes that possible."

Since taking this radically different approach, Ryan has seen turnover plummet and profits increase. What's more, high levels of employee commitment are common across companies on the list of flexible employers: 90 percent of employees at the winning organizations say they want to work at their companies for a long time, and 95 percent say people at their company are willing to give extra to get the job done. This just goes to show that work-life balance is not only possible in demanding professional fields, it can be invaluable for building high-performance teams.