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At a press conference on February 1, 2011 at the National Press Club announcing an unprecedented partnership between Families and Work Institute(FWI) and the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) to create workplaces for the 21st century, Admiral Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said that when he meets world leaders, he works to understand what life is like for them. And likewise when he makes decisions for the military, he works to understand what life is like for them and for their families.

And that was the theme song of the press conference--asking, listening, and acting.

Last year, SHRM commissioned a study of C-suite executives by the Economist Intelligence Unit, asking what the biggest threat was to their organizations' success. The answer: attracting and retaining top talent. They then conducted a study of HR executives, asking them about the best way to attract and retain top talent. The most frequent response--by 58%--was workplace flexibility. At the press conference, Hank Jackson, the Interim President and CEO of SHRM, said that this ranked even higher than compensation. As the former CFO of SHRM, he said this got his attention.

"If you think that this is one of those nice things to do for over-stressed employees, you're wrong. This is the next business imperative. This is the next revolution in boosting productivity because empowering people to do their best at all stages of their lives, regardless of their industry, background, or culture leads to innovation, a higher quality of work, more employee commitment, and yes, higher productivity."

Similarly, G. Brint Ryan, the CEO of the tax firm Ryan LLC based in Texas, described the experience of having a very talented employee come into his office, telling him that she loved the company and she loved her job, but she was going to quit because the way that she was working was unsustainable. And that got his attention. Calling himself a "lab rat," his company began an experiment called myRyan in 2009 that focuses on work results achieved, not hours worked. Employees can choose to work when and where they are most effective and efficient. Describing himself as a rabid capitalist, he said, "I didn't go down this path to provide another employee benefit. This is not like Friday afternoon pizza. I wanted to make money." Admitting that he was scared at first, the results have been more than positive. For the past two years, during these recessionary times, the company has posted higher-than-ever profits, record revenues, and great client rankings.

The asking, listening, and acting has gone on for a longer time at Deloitte, LLP. Chairman of the Board, Sharon Allen, described their process at the press conference as more of an evolution than a revolution. Beginning nearly 20 years ago, when they discovered that far too many of the talented women they had hired were leaving, but not--as they first thought--to raise children. She said: "When we took the time to ask, they told us very clearly that what they needed were more mentors, more substantial and meaningful assignments--and, far greater flexibility." This was a turning point in their culture, leading initially to an initiative for the retention and advancement of women, and involved creating a culture of flexibility.

But they kept asking and made another important discovery. She said, "It wasn't just women who wanted greater flexibility. Men did, too." So they listened and acted again, creating a customized talent experience through a career development tool called "Mass Career Customization." In collaboration with their managers, Deloitte employees can choose to "dial up, dial down, or pursue a more traditional path throughout different stages of their career, across the variables of pace, workload, location, schedule, and role." The results have paid off for Deloitte, which is now the largest private professional services organization in the world.

And it isn't just in Deloitte where these issues are emerging. Sharon Allen recalled being in Davos for the World Economic Forum last week. She said, "Not surprisingly, the most interesting sessions that I attended focused on the workforce. And my conclusion was--whether we were talking about closing the gender gap, engaging the next generation, or enabling global employment--workplace flexibility must be part of the solution."

Admiral Mullen and his wife Deborah spend a great deal of time talking to and listening to military families. He said, "I'm in the best military that has ever existed and, in great part, because of our families, but we have got to continue to change." What is emerging, he continued, is a need "to understand much more the needs of children" in those families.

"We've got 15-year-old kids who, from the beginning of the time they started to understand what their parents did, have lived in the shadow of war. We've got 18- and 19-year olds who were 10 when the war started, and they went off to college this year or last year and don't know their parents that well because Mom or Dad--mostly Dad--has been away for at least 50 percent ... of their teenage years."

For the military to continue to excel, Mullen said, "We're going to have to reach into different places than we've reached in the past." The services must listen to those who have been at home and consider how to create the kind of flexibility and excellence that have made today's military superb. He said, "This is a strategic imperative for our country."

Ted Childs, of Ted Childs, LLC, closed the press conference by saying, "To unleash the talent of our people is to treat flexibility as a strategic survival tool in a global workplace."

And that is what the partnership between SHRM and FWI is going to do. Together, we will ask, listen, and act by:

  • Creating Practical Tools: The partnership will develop educational materials and practical tools to help employers and human resource professionals advocate for and implement effective and flexible workplace strategies.
  • Conducting Research: The partnership will conduct and share research
  • Convening a Work Life Conference: The partnership will host a unique work-life conference from November 7-9 in Washington, which will engage human resource thought leaders from the areas of work-life, talent management, diversity and inclusion, and workplace effectiveness.
  • Giving Evidence-Based Awards: The partnership will continue to offer the Alfred P. Sloan Awards that FWI has been offering nationwide since 2005 to employers that demonstrate through an employer and employee surveys that they are providing effective and flexible workplaces.

I am especially pleased that the 3 organization represented at the press conference are winners of the Sloan Awards. The U.S. Navy applied for the first time this past year and had 7 winners and 3 honorable mentions. Ryan LLC has been involved for 2 years and had 15 winning worksites. And Deloitte LLC has participated in Sloan Awards for the past 6 years and had 13 winning worksites in this year. Because winning scores are heavily waited by employee views, we know they are effective and flexible- we have listened to employees.

So, as I said at the press conference, "Welcome to what we see as the real beginning of the 21st century in creating more effective and flexible workplaces!"

Cross posted with author permission from the Huffington Post.

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