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March 13, 2013Pop quiz: what workplace advantage—recently in the news because it’s on the chopping block at several major companies—increases productivity, efficiency, and work-life effectiveness and benefits employers and employees alike?

Answer: flexibility.

I’ve observed many company cultures around the world. I’ve seen cases in which flex has worked brilliantly—and cases in which it hasn’t worked as well. When companies set clear expectations and communicate them transparently, hold employees accountable for results, and champion smart business practices throughout the organization, flex works extremely well and everybody wins. As stated in a recent article on the subject, “By focusing more on measuring how well employees are doing their job, and worrying less about where the work gets done, companies with flexible work policies are seeing productivity go up.”

This is because they recognize the benefits of flexibility—and know how to implement it in ways that work. Companies with effective flex policies have a strong focus on business innovation, employee satisfaction, and work-life effectiveness.

At Catalyst, we understand that one size does not necessarily fit all. There are many approaches to getting work done around the globe, and many different tools to support employees, customers, and clients. Take for example Unilever’s 2013 Catalyst Award-winning initiative. Its hallmark flexible work program, “Agile Working,” is tied to positive business outcomes, including financial benefits to the company, as well as higher levels of employee engagement and productivity. It also enjoys the support of senior leadership.

Started in 2009 as a flexible work program, “Agile Working” has evolved into a pioneering career-long work model. Unilever is promoting “Agile Working” for women and men on a large scale in 12 locations and on a smaller scale in an additional 32 locations around the world. While flexibility is certainly a large part of it, “Agile Working” goes beyond most flexible work programs to create sustainable job structures. It promotes collaboration and job-sharing, helps attract and retain talent, and drives overall productivity and performance.

A 2012 Catalyst Award-winning initiative from Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA) also takes a progressive approach to building a flexible workplace. To create a culture that rewards results over face time, CBA developed innovative workspaces that allow employees to work wherever and whenever they need to in order to deliver their best results. CBA has implemented a range of practices, including job-sharing, career breaks (sabbaticals), and purchase leave, that replace the traditional emphasis on face time with a new focus on results. Because of CBA's strong support for work-life effectiveness, the proportion of employees who state that they work flexibly has increased from 35 percent in 2008 to 41 percent in 2011.

I applaud these exceptional programs, and the growing number of smart companies that are adopting them. At Catalyst, we have collected many great examples of innovative practices from organizations around the world, which we hope will serve as models for companies looking to develop better ways of doing business.  

As a Senior Director of Research at Catalyst working closely with member companies to monitor the efficacy of their diversity and inclusion (D&I) practices—and a virtual worker myself (I work from my home in Ohio)—I know how to “work smart” on a daily basis to support my team, my projects, and my clients. My company understands the value of flexibility. And “impromptu team meetings” still happen—typically by phone, video chat, instant message, and/or email.

Smart companies know that flexibility benefits everyone—women, men, customers, clients, and shareholders alike. It drives innovation. It allows all talent to contribute. It helps to foster a truly agile workplace. And its benefits can be felt by workers at any time of any given day, whether it’s from a coffee shop, cubicle, park bench, café, corner office, or home.