Back in 2008, the global tax services firm Ryan introduced the myRyan program, a relatively radical approach to workplace flexibility, especially for a firm as large and established as Ryan.

Delta Emerson, president of global shared services at Ryan and one of Recruiter Today‘s top 10 company culture experts, played a critical role in bringing myRyan to life. She explains that the “basic principle” of the program is to allow people to work “any time, anywhere, as long as they get their jobs done.” There are a few restrictions to the program, like the concept of “role reality,” by which Ryan recognizes that some positions do require a physical presence in the office, and therefore the model of flexibility for these positions is different than it would be for other roles. That being said, the nutshell summary of myRyan is that it allows people to “not be bound to specific hours or their cubicle desks. They just focus on getting work done.”

According to Emerson, the ROI on the program has been great.

“Everything is moving in the right direction,” she says. “Revenue is up year over year. Turnover has gone down. Satisfaction ratings are up. Everything that matters to the CEO has continued to head in the right direction.”

That being said, implementing a totally flexible work environment was no easy task. Emerson says that the team at Ryan spent a couple of years looking at the possibility of implementing such a high level of flexibility before making any decisions, and they spent six months designing the program before bringing it to fruition.

And even then, the rollout was not without its obstacles.

“One of the biggest issues we faced early on [was with management],” Emerson says. “We trained people about the policies, but we basically just told the managers, ‘Hey, this is going to be tough for some of you, and you’re just going to have to deal with it. If you don’t you’re going to lose people.’”

The leaders at Ryan quickly realized that it should have taken more time to equip managers with the tools they needed to “deal with” the transition. Since then, the company has course-corrected and now spends a lot of time training managers to work effectively in the environment.

But increased training isn’t the only reason why eight years later, myRyan is still going strong. Emerson has learned a lot about what it takes to make workplace flexibility stick. In the wake of some high-profile defections from telecommuting, the myRyan program may stand as an example of how the “any time, anywhere” work ideal can become a reality.

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Focus on Results and Leverage Your Culture

When asked what sets Ryan apart from other companies that have struggled to create and maintain similar workplace flexibility programs, Emerson points first to the fact that Ryan has “done a really good job of facilitating results-based conversations, as opposed to letting people manage by gut feel.”

“If I see you in your office and I’m in mine, and I assume you’re being effective because you’re there, that’s a really bad way to operate,” Emerson says. “We already had a lot of metrics sitting around, like client satisfaction rates and revenue, so we pulled it all together. When we’re talking to people about their results, it’s an intelligent conversation, not gut feel.”

Ryan keeps employees on track by framing all its conversations around concrete measurable metrics. Employees know they’re being evaluated against a specific set of criteria, and this guides them toward the right results. They know they can’t rest on their laurels. They have to deliver.

Emerson notes that she can’t say exactly why a given company struggles with flexibility unless she has firsthand information about the company, but she guesses that most companies that see their flexibility initiatives fail lack the results-based focus on Ryan.

“These companies may let people loose without any parameters,” Emerson says. “They may have just said, ‘We’re going to be flexible. You’re mature. Figure it out.’”

That approach leaves employees without any guidance – which is just asking for trouble.

Emerson also believes that culture played a role in the success of myRyan – but it also served as an obstacle to be overcome.

“On the one hand, our culture at the time worked against it,” Emerson says. “We were very draconian and had an expectation that people be in the office at a certain time and work a lot of hours, way above the average.”

This corporate mindset was a factor in pushing Ryan toward more flexibility. The company wanted to drop that toxic mentality. Because that mentality was so ingrained, however, adopting a flexible program was no mean feat. But there was one aspect of the Ryan culture that did make the process a little easier: the company’s focus on innovation.

Lake“The thing that worked in our favor is our business model. The way we tackle tax advisory is very innovative,” Emerson says. “We have people who think outside the box, and creativity comes naturally to us. That same mindset, when we realized we were behind the times with the way we managed people, enabled us to open our minds and say, ‘Okay, we were wrong on that. We need to catch up.’”

Without that creative spirit in the company, Emerson says, it might not have been as easy for the myRyan program to succeed.

The Ongoing Challenge of Camaraderie 

For the most part, myRyan is running smoothly and delivering serious ROI. There is, however, one challenge that the company still deals with: fostering camaraderie between team members.

“When you set up an environment where people can make their own hours, you may lose the connectedness you have when everyone is working in the same place all day every day,” Emerson says.

To tackle this problem, Ryan encourages individual teams to create “blueprints for how they will work together.”

“We encourage them to address how they will socialize and connect,” Emerson explains.

By emphasizing team bonds, Ryan also tries to strengthen the connections between employees and the company overall, thereby cutting down on feelings of isolation from the company’s mission and the turnover that usually follows such feelings.

“You need to make sure you’re building and preserving loyalty to the company,” Emerson says. “When you do lack connectedness, it could lead to someone feeling like they are independently employed and on an island. I think that could be a flight risk over time.”

But as long as you take time to foster connectedness – as well as base your flexible work program on results and leverage the strengths of your company culture – your organization should be able to create a program that pleases employees and shareholders alike.

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