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Flex Work Unlocks High-performance Talent in a Tight Labor Market

The labor market is increasingly tight — leaving many companies searching for ways to attract and retain talented employees. According to Manpower research, roughly 40 percent of U.S. employers report difficulty filling jobs because of the lack of labor, particularly in the skilled trades.

As of the last business day of October 2018, roughly 7.1 million positions remained open but unfilled — a record high and increase of 800,000 from January 2018. American companies have been creating an average of 150,000 to 200,000 net new jobs per month in recent years, and labor force growth is just keeping pace.

Among prime-age U.S. workers — 25 to 54 years old — only 62.7 percent are actively participating in the workforce. Even though the participation rate is rising, the current rate is still below the rates of the last 20 years. Of course, the 10,000 baby boomers retiring each day skew the numbers, but the net result is nonetheless a very tight labor market.

So what are employers, desperate to attract and retain top talent, to do? One answer could be creating a flexible workplace that better meets the needs of our modern, diverse workforce, paying particular attention to unheard, underserved and sometimes-ignored employee segments.

Women Missing in Action

Women hold the majority of bachelor’s degrees in the United States, yet many highly qualified women are temporarily out of the workforce because they are caring for children, aging parents or, increasingly, for both. While more than 70 percent of women with bachelor’s or other advanced degrees are working, roughly 4.7 million women who hold college or higher degrees do not work during their childbearing years, according to JLL’s analysis of the Current Population Survey published monthly by the U.S. Census Bureau.

Unfavorable workplace conditions can make a temporary exit the logical choice. When considering persistent wage disparities relative to male peers (and even greater wage inequities experienced by women of color), lack of affordable day care and inflexible working schedules, the choice for many qualified women is simply to leave the labor force. Some do so happily, while others feel compelled to leave because of economic circumstances.

Companies have a clear opening to become employers of choice by adopting policies and workplace strategies that make it easier for women — and men — to manage competing priorities. Paid maternity and paternity leave, affordable child care and equal pay are well understood by employers to help attract and retain talent, and also reinforce an organizational culture of fairness. Increasingly, companies are considering how flexibility can be a differentiator both for business results and employee engagement. While flexible schedules are one component, innovative organizations are thinking critically about the future of their business and how work can and should be performed. These reflections allow them to re-think work, work processes and the flexible workplaces that keep pace with dynamic business changes.

Design for Inclusion

Distinct workplace needs certainly aren’t limited to men or women of childbearing age. A growing number of workers have conditions that may qualify for accommodation under the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). Under the expanded definitions issued by the U.S. Dept. of Justice in 2016, ADA protections now encompass chronic physical conditions such as diabetes, multiple sclerosis and epilepsy, along with less visible cognitive conditions such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), autism spectrum disorder and learning disabilities. And, temporary conditions such as debilitating medical treatment may also warrant accommodation.

One-third of college-educated, full-time, white-collar employees between the ages of 21 and 65 self-identify as having some form of disability, according to the Center for Talent Innovation’s 2017 Disabilities and Inclusion study. A person with a disability could include, for instance, a Baby Boomer with aging-related vision loss or a younger worker diagnosed with ADHD.

Only when employers understand the richness and complexity of their workforce can they start to more accurately deliver on workplace experiences that result in satisfied, productive and included employees. Below are common workplace features that respond to employee needs:

  • Ergonomic needs such as sit/stand desks.
  • Environmental controls for those sensitive to noise, light, heat or cold.
  • Dedicated pumping rooms for nursing mothers, each with a mini-fridge, a power outlet and a comfortable chair or two.
  • Gender-neutral bathrooms.

A first step to understanding what workplace needs exist starts with knowing at a very detailed level who is in the workplace.

How to Realign Work and the Workforce

Our researchers discovered in the Workplace—Powered by Human Experience study that happiness is the key ingredient in a unique workplace experience, according to 70 percent of employees globally. Most people are happier and more productive when their office is designed around their needs, rather than around rigid lines of one-size-fits-all “cube farms” or private offices.

Designing for flexibility does not necessarily require costly upgrades or radical adjustments in workplace layout. In fact, best practices in modern workplace strategy encompass some naturally inclusive ideas, such as providing different kinds of workspaces for different kinds of work and work styles. A person can simply choose the workspace that is best for them that particular day, rather than a special office set aside for designated people.

As companies consider how to provide a more flexible workplace — one that attracts and retains highly skilled employees — it is critical to put the employees at the center, understand who is occupying the workplace, and learn about their needs. Designing the workplace around the human experience, rather than vice versa, is how a company can gain competitive advantage in the war for talent, and win at productivity and profitability, too.

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