Work-life: A Bottom-line Boon?

Employee flexibility programs can prop up profits, CFOs tell BDO Seidman — including some whose companies don't offer them. A tip: Don't let HR run the show solo.

While programs offering work-life flexibility for employees have been a staple of public accounting firms’ recruiting and retention efforts, other companies could learn from their example — and not just to shore up their staff. The bottom line may benefit, too.

That, at least, is the conclusion of research released on Wednesday by BDO Seidman, which interviewed 100 CFOs from a group of 1,800 whose companies have at least 5,000 employees. Three-quarters of the respondents said they think work-life programs have a “high” or “moderate” positive impact on productivity and on providing differentiation from competitors. Just more than half said they expect a high or moderate effect on health-care costs.

Yet only 39 percent of the responding CFOs work for companies that have formal flexibility policies. And while 75 percent said flexibility is “very important” or “somewhat important” to their companies’ future profitability, 62 percent think their management teams see it only as an employee perk or human resources policy. They don’t make a connection between flexibility and other business objectives.

Companies falling into that gap presumably would be ideal customers for the co-sponsor of the research, Work+Life Fit, a consulting firm that develops flexibility strategies, and in fact did so for BDO Seidman, which itself is a provider of business consulting services. According to Cali Yost, the flex firm’s president, the survey was performed by an independent research company and the 100 CFOs were chosen strictly at random.

To Jack Weisbaum, the chief executive of BDO Seidman, there is little point in a work-life program that does not boost the bottom line. It has to be conceived and executed as a strategy for business success, he told CFO.com.

A few years back, when the accounting firm began talking about instituting a formal flex policy to enhance its retention and recruiting efforts, Weisbaum said he at first decided not to invest in that. “It just didn’t make any sense to me — I didn’t see a big return on it,” he said.

What changed his mind was not so much a newfound appreciation for the value of flex in recruiting top talent as an observation about the fast-changing nature of the firm’s business. “We’ve grown a lot in the last four or five years, and a lot of that has come from multinational clients,” he said. “The demands of that client base are such that our people can’t work traditional hours anymore to service these clients. There is a lot of work done late at night and early in the morning, and we can’t expect people to work 24 hours a day.”

(For purposes of the research, “work-life flexibility” was defined as “having adequate time for what is important to you both personally and professionally, as well as flexibility in how you allocate that time.” Companies adopting a work-life strategy may, for example, allow some employees to work longer hours on fewer days per week, take a portion of the year off, work early or late, telecommute, move freely between company offices, semi-retire, etc.)

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