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Flexibility equals happy workers

With unemployment on the rise — slowed only by a couple of glimmers of hope — job security is fast becoming a subject we will reminisce about with our grandchildren.

These days, many workers think their companies see them simply as robots that can be tossed aside and quickly replaced. Therefore, they hesitate to ask for needed time off or schedule changes to deal with personal issues or family crisis, creating even more stress in their lives. Less productivity soon follows, and the vicious circle is complete.

No parts of that scenario need exist, however, said Laura Flowers, manager of operations at the University of Kentucky's Institute for Workplace Innovation, also called IWIN.

Although some workers have to take on more responsibility that might reduce their morale, flexibility in the workplace is the answer.

"Flexibility is a low-cost benefit that employers can offer," Flowers said. "They can offer simple things, like come in later and work later, that can boost morale."

And when employees' morale is high, so is productivity, numerous studies show.

Flexibility is important because research shows that it also attracts talented workers, retains valued employees and reduces stress, burnout and personal conflicts. And it can be a good alternative to downsizing.

Businesses have to find different ways to create a flexible work environment while keeping costs down, and a nationwide initiative that is going statewide this year, plans to help.

Kentucky employers can apply for the 2009 Alfred P. Sloan Awards for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility. The award is part of a national and community-based program — When Work Works — that highlights the importance of workplace flexibility as a competitive advantage and a benefit to employers and employees alike.

For 10 years, the Sloan Foundation, established in 1934 by the former chief executive of General Motors, has studied working families and the challenges for two-wage-earner families, along with many other issues.

To apply for the award, businesses submit their practices and policies that make working for them more inviting.

The applications are measured against those of other employers nationwide, and the top 20 percent enter a second phase of competition in which their employees are surveyed.

Those scoring in the top 20 percent after that phase are considered winners, and their companies will be mentioned in a full-page ad in USA Today, in the Congressional Record, and at an awards dinner.

Last year, 319 companies, agencies and non-profits nationally were recognized.

"These are turbulent times," Flowers said. "This program can be used as a marketing tool. When you have no marketing budget, this is free press. It shows they are doing things for their employees and their communities," and that's important to younger workers.

The innovations that employers have found to succeed are then available for others to read and glean from.

"The agenda is to educate employers on how to effectively manage folks who are working flexibly," she said. "There may be challenges, but research shows there are also benefits."

Last year, Lexington and Louisville were two of 30 cities chosen to participate in the initiative.

"We did such a great job, we were asked to take this initiative statewide," said Jennifer E. Swanberg, executive director and founder of IWIN. "We are only one of three states given this honor. We really want to highlight Kentucky's strengths.

"We're trying to get at least 50 employers to apply from around the state," she said. "The application is free, and it gives employers national benchmarking comparisons."

UK's IWIN is charged with taking the initiative statewide, and Greater Louisville Inc., the Louisville area's chamber of commerce, covers Louisville.

The law firm of Woodward, Hobson & Fulton, with offices in Lexington and Louisville, was one of 18 winners in Kentucky last year. Its human resources manager, Trasee Whitaker, said that when she attended the awards ceremony last year, she learned what other employers were doing regarding wellness and paid time off.

Companies revealed innovative morale boosters such as handing out treats and holding town hall-like meetings, she said.

"Kentucky employers are very innovative," she said. "We learned from others, and they gleaned from us."

The 138 people who work for the law firm act as a team, Whitaker said, covering when an employee has to attend to an elderly parent or care for a child, or who needs to be away from work for other reasons. It must work, because the firm has consistently been named a top place to work in Louisville and Kentucky.

The firm is entering the competition for the Sloan Award again this year.

To apply for the Alfred P. Sloan Awards, go to Employers must complete the free on-line survey, which takes about 20 minutes. The deadline is May 1.

Every employer needs to find new ways to get the job done more efficiently, and they can do that by having happy and productive employees.

Participating in this award might be the simplest way to do both.