Workforce Development Council wins Sloan award for business excellence in its programs

Workforce Development Council of Snohomish County has been named a winner of a Alfred P. Sloan award for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility.

Presented at an August luncheon hosted by the Greater Seattle Chamber of Commerce, the Sloan awards are given to companies across the country as part of “When Work Works,” a nationwide initiative that focuses on workplace flexibility to meet business and employee goals.

The initiative, led by the Families and Work Institute, is sponsored by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the Institute for a Competitive Workforce, and the Twiga Foundation.

“I strongly believe that having the ability to telework is a good workforce skill,” said Sue Ambler, CEO of Workforce Development Council of Snohomish County.

Ambler introduced workplace flexibility, which included teleworking, into her organization about two years ago when she was unable to give raises to her employees and employee health insurance costs were increasing.

To help offset this and make the employees happy, Ambler and her leadership team came up with the idea of giving employees the option to work from home. If employees worked one day at home, the money saved in gas would offset their increased health insurance costs.

The idea of working off-site was steeped in the principal that employees were held accountable for results, rather than someone looking over their shoulder. And, for most cases, performance was delivered by a team of employees rather single individuals.

What began as a six-month trial soon became the norm and is still very much a part of Workforce Development Council’s culture. Today employees have the option to work at home and they can compress their hours into four ten-hour days per week or nine eight-hour days in a two-week period.

Employees work together with their supervisors to establish their flexible schedules. Also, those who have children are encouraged to adjust their hours to meet parental obligations such school field trips and other family needs.

“It has worked tremendously,” said Ambler.

Winning the award was no easy feat. It was a rigorous two-step process. Employers were evaluated through a process that measured their workplace flexibility programs, policies and culture against national data from other U.S. employers. Winners had to score in the top 20 percent nationally and their employees had to validate their claims through a comprehensive anonymous survey about how their work schedule actually works for them.

Samantha Dyess, Americorps program coordinator, said the flexible work schedule is definitely comparable to a pay increase or bonus. She lives in Seattle and works from home one day per week.

Her life is centered in Seattle, so working from home allows her quicker access to nearby appointments after her workday. She also likes “working in sweatpants,” and the uninterrupted work time at home. “I’m very accessible, but I can do what I need to do,” she said.

Michael Choy, Director of Information Technology and interim Director of Finance agrees customized work schedules work well for many employees.

“I got this guy (his 10-month-old Chinook named Chaka that occasionally comes to work with him) when he was a puppy,” he said.

It’s another benefit of the organization’s flexible workplace. Employees can bring their pets to work with the caveat that people who have allergies or a fear of dogs must be considered first. “It’s basically people’s comfort first,” he said.

“We are the ones who facilitate the customized work environment,” Choy said.

His department sets up access to electronic files and instant messaging for employee home computers.

Home offices are essentially an extension of the work office. His department ensures that people have safe home working environments and all of the tools to get their work done.

Ambler says employees like having choices in their work schedule and the change has been positive in many ways.

“We actually find that people aren’t sick as much and don’t take as much time off,” she said. Referring to last year when the region got a lot of snow, “We didn’t miss a beat (in our work),” she said.

Ambler does not want to set hard and fast policies about their customized schedules. Instead, the organization has guidelines to follow. The flexibility strategies at the Workforce Development Council are addressed by a team of employees who make recommendations.

“We are not a cookie-cutter operation. It’s what works for the organization and the person,” Choy said.

“We have a culture of not just listening, but acting upon it,” Ambler said. “People are really happy to work here.”

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