Early on in her career, at a time when email had just come out, Jeanette Armbrust was working for the creators of Sesame Street Live and had the opportunity to work remotely after moving and becoming a new mom. “I remember really valuing that job because they allowed it to fit into my life,” she says. “I thought, ‘I’m never going to leave.’”
While she eventually did, the feeling of having this trust and flexibility as an employee stuck with her as she became a business owner herself. She first started and grew an innovative exhibit solutions dealership, Skyline Exhibits of Central Ohio, before selling it back to the manufacturer. Then, two years ago after moving back to Los Angeles where she grew up, she accepted an opportunity to head up Skyline’s local corporate location as managing director.
“After owning the Ohio location for 17 years, to go back and start over again and apply the lessons I learned and really repeat all the madness in a more knowledgeable way was exciting,” says Jeanette, who is also a long-time NAWBO member and National board member. “I love building teams and business.”
Flexible workforce initiatives have been a huge part of that. “I knew very early on that my biggest assets in my business were my human capital assets, so to grow people, keep them and make them feel like part of the team and, in turn, for them to want to work hard and stay with the company,” she shares. “I had about 26 employees when I sold the business and a lot had been with me for 11 to 15 years. It was because of the culture I had created, but also the fact that they had flexibility to incorporate their work into their life. It evolved over a long period of time, but for a company of my size, it was very unique at the time.”
Here’s what this workplace flexibility eventually looked like:
- Hours: The business had a lot of parents who wanted to drop off their kids at school or attend mid-day school program—but really, everyone has a different life schedule. The office was open from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. and employees had the ability to stagger their hours to meet their life schedule as long as they were getting in their 40-plus hours a week, getting their job done and their department was staffed by someone to serve customers. “I told them, ‘Work as a team to make sure someone in your department is always there,’” says Jeanette. “From the beginning, people felt like they had control over their life."
- Paid time off: The business didn’t do the standard two weeks of vacation plus one week of sick. Instead, time off was given in hours per year that could be taken as full days or in 15-minute increments. This gave employees control over their paid time off and allowed them to go to doctor appointments or programs at their kids’ school without having to take a half or full day off. Again, the rule was that everyone in a department couldn’t be gone at the same time.
- Summer hours: From Memorial to Labor Day, the business shifted into summer hour mode. Employees were able to choose working 10-hour days Monday through Thursday when business was busier and then take Fridays off as long as the departments were still manned. “Some chose not to participate in it and that was fine,” says Jeanette. “Also, for sales team members whose pay is mostly commission-based, I didn’t even keep track of their hours. I managed them based on their activity level and how they were performing. They could come and go as they pleased as long as they were getting their work done.”
- Work from home: All employees were given the ability to work from home one day a week. It worked out great for employees who, for instance, had to stay home with a sick kid but still wanted to work.
- Birthdays off: As their birthday gift from the company, all employees were given one day off during their birth month.
- Monthly teambuilding: Once a month, the office would close at 3 p.m. and the team would head out to watch a movie, grab happy hour or go bowling together.
“I had the ability to check on all of this, but hardly ever had to,” shares Jeanette. “It was very much an open door/book management approach and about getting your work done versus micromanaging the hours employees were sitting at their desks. When Skyline bought the location in Ohio, they said, ‘We can’t take these things away.’ They’ve actually implemented some of the things in their other corporate stores.”
Meanwhile, Jeanette has been inspired to do many of the same things in L.A. with her mainly sales and service team members. “I’m running a virtual office here and it’s working out well,” she says. “There’s no way I could have a team to cover this entire market working out of one office. It’s not imperative that they’re here so they work from their home offices and come here once a week (or more if they want) to meet and touch base. We also meet at coffee shops for one-on-ones and Facetime and Skype a lot, but everything is happening outside of this office.”
It wasn’t easy at first to take the leap into a flexible workforce model. Like many women business owners, Jeanette grew up in an era where employees clocked in and out and were at their desks from 8 to 5 with people watching you. “It was very difficult at first for me to wrap my brain around not being able to sit at my desk and see everyone,” she says. “I was recently part of a NAWBO roundtable and many women felt the same.”
However, the results have been well worth embracing the shift in mindset. Here are a few Jeanette has experienced:
- The more you treat people like adults who should be able to control their time and work and give 100%, the more they will rise to the bar you hold them to.
- If you micro-manage people, you will always have to micro-manage them.
- People want to work for people they know and trust and you build trust when you give trust.
- The next generation cares more about work-life balance and having the ability to manage their time than sometimes even pay.
“It was a way I feel like I built a lot of retention because it was about, ‘We’re all in the same boat rowing in the same direction for these collaborative goals we have. I’m the vision person and know where we want to go, but I’m in the boat rowing just as much as you are,’” Jeanette adds. “When you give them this flexibility to have a balanced life, it’s a win-win and people won’t leave; they appreciate it.”
Make That a Win-Win-Win
Jeanette says workplace flexibility is a win for everyone involved:
- For the employee, it’s a win because they feel like they work for a company that trusts and values them.
- For the company, it’s a win because they retain employees and avoid costly turnovers.
- For the customer, it’s a win because customers feel they have a relationship with your employees. You can’t build a business when customers continuously have a new person with whom they are working.