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What If Employers Embraced Flexibility

By Dana LaChapelle

More than 20 years ago, Accenture recognized that, in order to recruit and retain first-class professionals, it needed to provide them with opportunities to balance their work and personal needs. I know, because I was the first woman to secure this valuable benefit in a pilot of what has become a formal program that offers flexible work arrangements (FWA).

At the time, I was a full-time consultant at Accenture, but when I gave birth to my first child, who had Down syndrome, I could not in good conscience return to work full-time. Some months later, however, I decided (with full family support) that part-time employment would be satisfying both on a personal and a professional level — and would allow me to meet client needs. I met with my ex-supervisor, fully expecting him to reject my request because it never had been done before. Much to my surprise, however, the answer was yes. That “yes,” has helped me establish a meaningful balance of my professional and personal life and, over the years, has secured my loyalty to Accenture.

Today, Accenture employees have a variety of flexible arrangements for work scheduling and location available to them. These include part-time, flextime, job sharing, a modified or compressed work week and telecommuting. Additional options are also available to professionals working on out-of-town assignments. The company determines eligibility for these programs at the local level, since, as a global company, it must comply with local practices, cultures and employment laws.

Accenture’s FWA program is an unqualified success. A recent global survey of Accenture employees found that approximately four in 10 employees had taken advantage of some form of FWA in the past year. Employee feedback has highlighted the success of Accenture’s FWA program. Employees are appreciative that the program is available, and those who have altered their work arrangements through FWA say that it has enabled them to balance their work and personal lives more effectively.

Recognition for the program has also come from outside sources, including well-respected organizations such as Catalyst, Working Mother Magazine, Diversity, Inc, and the Black Collegian Magazine.

What accounts for the success? I believe there are at least two factors. First and foremost, there must be a universal understanding that fulfilling clients’ needs is paramount. As a result, prospective FWA employees must ask themselves some key questions, including whether their FWA requests allow for business needs to be met; the impact an approved FWA will have on their clients and teammates; and whether they are prepared to be flexible about their FWA. The employee working with a client who answers, “I can only work these three days and no others,” may not be not suitable for FWA, while the employee who says, “I prefer to work these three days, but will alter my schedule to meet client needs,” demonstrates the spirit underpinning the program.

The second factor is based on participants’ appreciation that each arrangement is customized to an individual situation. In a high-powered, client-service, global organization, that is no small feat. But the same is also true when sales associates at a retailer are eyeing flexible accommodations.

Through its FWA program, Accenture underscores its respect for the individual, allowing choice in how employees deliver business results while balancing their work and personal lives. Clearly, this helps differentiate Accenture from less enlightened firms, and it is why I continue to take pride in working for this forward-looking company. Such benefits, however, need not be limited to my employer. Success in achieving flexibility can start with one conversation using these principles and can ultimately impact your entire workforce.

Dana LaChapelle is the Director of Operations, Accenture, Products North America.