A small business model for flexible workplaces

Respectively, we run Kerbey Lane Doll Shoppe, a retail shop selling dolls and other toys, and Business Access, a technology company. Our employees juggle multiple responsibilities: they care for kids, parents, grandparents, and in-laws. They have doctor appointments that can be scheduled only during working hours. From time to time, they fall ill. And sometimes the plumbing goes out.

The choices employees across the country face aren’t easy, but in some cases they’re plain impossible.  It’s shocking to learn that two-fifths of private sector workers in the U.S. – and four out of five of the lowest-wage workers – don’t have a single paid sick day on the job. Their unenviable decision: either go to work ill, or lose a paycheck for staying home with a sick kid or getting well themselves.

For us, flexibility is the right thing to do. It’s also the smart thing to do.

Bad times are the worst time for anyone to lose a job.  But working while sick – or even just distracted – is just as detrimental to employers’ bottom line as it is to workers’ ability to keep bread on the table.  As the President put it, “attracting and retaining employees who are productive … is not just good for business or for our economy – it’s good for our families and our future.”

Thankfully, the President’s commitment doesn’t end with words.  In October, his Department of Labor went to Dallas to host the first of multiple events around the country on workplace flexibility.

The event tackled best practices in small businesses.  As Texan small business owners who offer flexible work arrangements, we were delighted to participate and applaud the White House for initiating a conversation on an issue so vital to the success of business owners, the security of workers, and the stability of families.

What does flexibility mean at our businesses? Adaptable start and end times. Letting employees help decide their schedules, rather than being subject to rigid or unpredictable work hours. And allowing them to reduce their hours, without a cut in their hourly pay and at least pro-rated benefits.

Kerbey Lane lets staff choose days and hours together - allowing them to schedule the rest of their lives. At Business Access, telecommuting means employees get a windfall of precious hours usually spent getting to and from the office. And in turn, we get rejuvenated employees with time to focus on complex projects, undistracted by the normal office interruptions.

It’s essential that flexibility also includes paid time off. We want workers to stay home when they’re sick and not infect others – and they can’t if the time isn’t paid, or if taking off routinely results in discipline. We also help to arrange affordable leave when an employee has a new baby or a family member with a serious illness.

Employees at Kerbey Lane may take time off for health, educational or personal reasons. Our staff has the security of knowing that in their absence their role will remain unchanged – and that helps us retain the cream of the crop. When an employee at Business Access has health issues, we do everything we can to be a shelter in the storm – offering short and long-term disability, flex-time, personal leave, job sharing and lots of good wishes. We expect our employees to go all out when we need them and we do the same when they need us.

It’s inconvenient to have someone out on leave. But it’s disruptive and plain expensive to lose someone permanently.

As Kerbey Lane grows as a small business, each player has a vital role to play in enabling the company to expand – and that requires commitment from everyone. As the business succeeds, we all reap the rewards. This has enabled us to retain managerial, operations and retail talent for over 10 years. Similarly, the flexibility at Business Access gives employees today means one-third of our staff has been with us for 10 years or more.

We appreciate the government’s role educating employers and encouraging best practices. But it also must set reasonable labor standards, such as paid sick days and family leave insurance plans. That gives employers like us a level playing field. And it guarantees a minimum of protection to ALL workers.

Our job is to establish the most productive environment for our employees. If they are worried about family issues, they won’t be 100 percent focused on their job. National minimal standards would be akin to the minimum wage – we exceed the basement to get a competitive advantage in attracting great employees, and our competitors can’t undercut that with bad employment practices.

The DOL’s forum was just a first step, in these conversations and in creating the best work environments for workers and employers alike.  We look forward to working with the President, with other employers, and with the government to ensure all workers are able to do their best job at work and at home.

Kimberly Bunting is the CEO and founder of Business Access and Katherine Zimmerman is the owner of Kerbey Lane Doll Shoppe.