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More than a new boss

Succession planning includes business-wide changes

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WHILE it's true many baby boomers are indeed not retiring at the lightening speed first expected, for business leaders to think the issue of succession planning is a lot of ado about nothing is crazy. In my view, ignoring the broader issues related to succession planning is tantamount to burying your head in the sand.

Yet at the same time, these same business leaders often think of succession planning from a very narrow perspective. More specifically, many leaders tend only to think of what human resource professionals know as replacement planning. In other words, they will think about the singular potential of replacing an organizational leader but fail to look at all the other elements of succession such as employee demographics, inter-generational issues and the natural culture change that often accompanies a so-called replacement.

In fact, a recent new study has suggested that only 41 per cent of 100 business leader participants were ready for the cultural changes that will inevitably happen when generation X and Y enter organizations as the new leaders. At the same time, many of today's organizations don't have the organization structures and support systems that will attract those younger generation leaders.

At one time, the younger generation was thought to be simply attracted to unique rewards such as a lucrative signing bonus, being able to bring their dog to work and/or to work at a special desk built from children's mini-blocks. Today, studies are showing that they seek opportunities for personal growth and development, work/life balance and flexible work hours.

While some organizations might just be thinking about instituting flexible work hours and cautiously take their first steps, still others such as Best Buy and Yahoo are retreating from this strategy. On the other hand, Unilever, the multinational consumer goods company with over 400 products and thousands of employees is engaging in what it calls a "flexible revolution." Following a pilot project in 2008, Unilever now has over 100,000 mostly non-factory employees working anytime and anywhere, as long as they meet business needs.

However, selling the idea of flexible work hours was not and is not always easy and requires an in-depth business case customized to the needs of your business. With offices in over 43 countries across the world, Unilever identified that one of the big potential benefits identified was the opportunity to reduce travel time. With such superior technology available today, it was determined that meetings could be held through remote webcams, videoconferencing, Skype and other technologies. The Unilever pilot project in 2008 demonstrated that these new technologies significantly increased the ease of communication across the company. To date, the company has eliminated 5,000 travel flights and holds over 1,000 virtual meetings per month.

A second major benefit for Unilever was the ability to reduce its real estate footprint, which resulted in a 30 per cent savings. Offices were downsized while cubicles and offices were turned into communal facilities where employees booked space for quiet research and/or meetings. Office reductions also resulted in lower energy costs. The company is planning to reduce its real estate by another 30 per cent by 2018.

A third benefit proposed for the company was the idea that flexibility would enhance Unilever's employee value proposition and improve retention. Once again, their 2008 pilot project demonstrated that employee productivity increased, as did the satisfaction at being better able to meet both professional and personal demands.

The idea of flextime and "hoteling" similar to Unilever's project is not new, but it has been slow to catch on and some experiments have not been successful. For instance, companies such as Best Buy and Yahoo recently reported that work-at-home employees experienced a lack of focus, slacked off, worked on non-corporate projects and were often not available when needed. As a result, both companies have withdrawn the privilege of working at home as a flextime option.

However, if the demand for work flexibility continues as a candidate-attraction tool, then organizations are going to have to make changes to adapt to this type of culture. However, it appears that more effective systems must be put into place to supervise and ensure employee accountability.

At the same time, unlike Unilever, most small to mid-sized organizations simply do not have the resources to conduct their own pilot project and initiating a full-force flexible workplace strategy would spell chaos for everyone.

However, there are other alternatives that an organization can begin with. These include allowing flexible break times, flexible start and stop times on a yearly basis and/or during seasonal requirements, compressed work weeks, part-time, the occasional working at home, job sharing, and/or telecommuting.

Establishing a flexible work environment requires a good deal of pre-planning and change in management strategies. First, you need to identify whether the nature of your business is suitable for a flexible work environment. Examine the benefits to your organization and ensure that any proposed arrangement will support your goals and objectives and reduce rather than increase costs. This will require not only research but the need to have senior executives onside. If not, internal resistance from this level of management can literally jeopardize any potential success.

You will need to examine the type of infrastructure support required for success. If employees are going to be working from their home, they will need strong information technology resources and support. As well, there are other issues such as ensuring a proper office structure in the home, furniture requirements, confidentiality and potential impact on homeowner insurance.

In order to be successful, managers will require in-depth training on how to supervise from a distance, which puts more of a focus on setting goals, objectives and ensuring employee accountability. An employee's work style and personal history with the company also need to be taken into consideration as they must be fully able to function in any new arrangement.

Flex time through working at home has also been known to create issues resulting from isolation, so special arrangements for regular communication with team members and managers must be put into place.

Overall, it is best to create written documentation of the new flextime arrangement with timelines for experimental pilot projects and milestones for evaluation. As well, your human resource policies must be updated to include all of the implementation elements, rules and regulations regarding flextime.

Flextime itself has been around for many years but with business succession incorporating the perceived needs of a younger leadership generation, more and more thought has to be put into a flextime strategy in order to make it successful for all concerned. As you can see, succession plans can no longer simply be replacement plans, they also need to incorporate major initiatives and cultural change to your organization.

Source: Phasing Out Face Time, Flexibility Rules at Unilever - as long as the work gets done, HR Magazine, April 2013, The Death of work at Home, Yahoo calls employees back to the office, cites issues with communication and collaboration, HR Reporter, March 25, 2013, "Culture Clash" in retirement wave, Winnipeg Free Press, May 9, 2013.

Barbara J. Bowes, FCHRP, CMC, CCP. M.Ed. is president of Legacy Bowes Group. She can be reached at

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 18, 2013 H1

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