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Mind Your Business

Allen Harris: When hiring during a labor shortage, you must embrace workplace flexibility

Economy Jobs Report (copy)

If you need to hire employees during a labor shortage, you must be prepared to give them what they want — workplace flexibility, writes Eagle columnist Allen Harris. 

If you need to hire employees during a labor shortage, you must be prepared to give them what they want — workplace flexibility. You don’t need to trade-off between productivity and allowing employees a nontraditional schedule. Once you figure out how to achieve that balance, you’ll have an edge in hiring.

New things can be scary, but all I am recommending is a new spin on an old-school method — the RACI matrix. I remember reading about RACI in college some 30 years ago. If you’re unsure about stepping into 2022 with the latest management techniques, there’s your tried-and-true. The new approach to managing flex-workers defines who is Responsible, Accountable, Consulted and Informed.

Last month I had the honor of being the lead speaker at a financial conference in Boston. I explained to other professional financial advisers the best places to allocate their investments now and why. As much as I enjoy these presentations, my favorite element of industry conferences is the happy hour. That’s when we get a little more candid about the problems we’re facing.

To be clear, my audience of about a hundred wasn’t your run-of-the-mill advisers. We’re talking CEOs and owners of multibillion-dollar firms — exceedingly larger and operationally more complex than investment firms in Western Massachusetts, including my own firm, Berkshire Money Management.

We got to talking about our biggest non-investment challenges. The increasing cost of capital was top of mind. Keeping up with digital technologies and software integrations is a constant challenge. Changing consumer trends are happening at lightning speed, and we need to keep up. But the most significant and immediate challenge was recruiting.

You, me, and my fellow conference-goers have all done the basics to lure new workers. Our help-wanted ads were written well with compelling job descriptions. Employee referral programs were implemented. We sifted through posted resumes on job websites. The best recruiters were hired. Social media was utilized.

Those basic efforts are just to get candidates to meet with us. Once we have a conversation with a prospective employee, we present our best pitch on working for us. However, what we’re selling today is different than what we were selling even in 2019 — a time when a tight labor market was also a problem. A lot has changed in just a few years.

Owners of these massive financial advisory firms are repeatedly informed by potential employees that their primary need is workplace flexibility (i.e., the ability to work for a defined duration at times convenient for the employee). Some readers may roll their eyes at the concept of “workplace flexibility,” thinking of it as some sort of eccentric fringe benefit for employees who need to be coddled. Despite some owners’ unfavorable views on this perquisite, it’s prevalent in every industry and is likely to stay. Owners should want it to remain; it reduces real estate and workstation costs. New management techniques will not only help you acquire talent but improve the bottom line.

Workplace flexibility allows workers to avoid burnout, enjoy greater job satisfaction and participate in more family activities. Happy employees are crucial in developing and maintaining a positive customer experience, which improves the top line. Workplace flexibility is so important that people are willing to change jobs to get it. Understanding this will help you create a plan to retain employees, improve workplace culture, and hire workers other companies are competing for.

Anton, senior vice president of a multinational money management firm, was relieved when his company announced that all employees would return to the office after working from home throughout the pandemic. It had been a challenge for the company to maintain productivity. Long waits for status updates and answers to questions did not allow the firm to respond to clients quickly. Also, it was taking days to get people together in the same virtual place. In contrast, before the pandemic, it was easy for a small group to meet down the hall to coordinate efforts.

Your hurdles won’t be the same as Anton’s, but workplace flexibility will create obstacles for you to navigate. It’s essential to be aware of them so that you don’t make the same mistakes as Anton. Anton made this an employee issue when it’s a management responsibility.

That’s the thing, isn’t it? The team needs to be well-managed. Employees need to have accountability, but your company’s success is — and always has been — dependent upon your management team adapting to change. This is a new era of employee engagement. That means accepting input from employees then setting clear expectations.

Workers need to understand that flexibility does not mean a lack of structure. Too much flexibility does not allow for work to get done. According to the OC Tanner Institute’s 2022 Global Culture Report, tasks that require collaboration and lots of communication are better managed from the office. It is not inappropriate for an employer to require workers to carefully block out specific times to work together on complex projects that require teamwork.

For example, Whitney, who owns a financial firm in Greenwich, Conn., has her entire team come to the office from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. on Mondays. She has smaller groups meet at predefined times on different days. Whitney works with employees to customize meeting times for new clients and operational projects, allowing for videoconferencing when appropriate.

Management must make information readily available in all workplaces, especially flexible ones. Transparency will enable employees to work together more efficiently because, in part, it allows managers to identify sticking points so they can step in and assist. Having workplace flexibility does not mean there is a lack of employee accountability and responsibility. It means is that teams need to work together differently. New software packages can help, but the core concept remains — managers need to step in to support employees where needed and ensure tasks move down the line until the project is completed.

Michael, who led the “Technology Solutions and Practice Management Roundtable” at my conference, recommended Microsoft’s Azure. Per Microsoft’s website, “You can grant or restrict access to various work tracking features by granting users or groups specific permissions for an object, project, or collection.” If you conduct a web search for “work in progress” software, you’ll find other software options.

Blend time-tested and new management techniques to support, retain, and build your workforce to increase revenue and profits.

Allen Harris is the owner of Berkshire Money Management in Dalton. He can be reached at aharris@berkshiremm.com.

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