Image of man with Down syndrome looking up from a computer desk in an office.Today, more and more employers are learning that they don’t have to do things the old fashioned way. To stay competitive, many are thinking outside the proverbial box to meet the diverse needs of individual employees. One increasingly popular strategy on this front is workplace flexibility—a practice that breeds employee loyalty and enables many workers to perform to their fullest potential.

Workplace flexibility takes many forms. For a new parent, it might mean a part-time work schedule. For a person with a mobility disability, it might mean telecommuting due to lack of accessible transportation. For a person with a chronic illness, it might mean an adapted schedule to manage medical appointments or medication administration. Regardless of the reason why, research shows that strategies such as telework and flextime contribute greatly to increased productivity—for all employees, including employees with disabilities.

While workplace flexibility is often associated with when and where employees work, it also covers flexibility of task. That can mean redefining or customizing an individual’s job description to capitalize on their strengths so that they can best assist you in addressing your business needs. Again, this is a practice that can benefit all employees.

Want to Learn More?
There are a number of resources small businesses can use to learn more about workplace flexibility, such as:

In Action

Started in 1989 as an eight-table restaurant with five employees, Chelino’s Mexican Restaurant has grown to include 13 outlets, including a tortilla factory and meat market, bakery and ice cream factory. Owner Marcelino Garcia—an active member of the Greater Oklahoma City Hispanic Chamber of Commerce—has overseen his business’s growth with great pride and attributes much of his success to his employees, who now number more than 500. Among these are many people with significant disabilities who hold a variety of roles mapped to their specific skill sets, including table busing, food preparation and silverware rolling. Garcia works with disability service providers to customize these positions to people’s strengths. Businesses have a lot to gain from being welcoming to people with disabilities, says Garcia. “They’re hard workers. They’re on time. They’re always responsible. If anyone comes and applies for a job with you and it is somebody with a disability, don’t be afraid to hire them,” he said. “You’ll be happy to have someone with a disability working for you, and they will appreciate the opportunity to work with you.”

An office solutions business that hired a summer intern with a disability found that workplace flexibility around task was key to his success in returning to work after several years out of the workforce. This intern, who was in his 40s, had experienced a traumatic brain injury, and certain tasks took him more time to complete. Recognizing this, his manager had him focus on accounting tasks that, while important, did not have a hard and fast deadline. He was able to work on these tasks for a short period every day, which proved mutually beneficial to both his manager’s needs and the intern’s work style.

Every day, Puzzles Bakery and Café in historic downtown Schenectady, New York serves up not only sandwiches, baked goods and soup to the city’s hungry patrons, but also integrated employment and training opportunities for local residents with autism and other developmental disabilities. Key to the enterprise’s success is matching each person’s skills to the right job, ranging from customer service to food preparation and everything in between. For some employees, this customization process may involve job shadowing or internships to uncover strengths and interests. Puzzles also offers short shifts in order to facilitate employment opportunities for a wider range of people with special needs, both with and without disabilities.

Hudson Valley, New York-based Good Reasons is a non-profit dog treat company with a dual mission: to create delicious and healthy dog treats while providing employment and training for people with autism and other developmental disabilities in an integrated environment. Currently half of the company’s 10 employees are people with developmental disabilities, and its parent organization, disability services provider Community Based Services, Inc., works closely to customize employees’ job duties based on their particular strengths. The recipe seems to work; within one year of opening, Good Reasons dog treats were being sold in more than 40 regional supermarkets and veterinary clinics and 130 pet stores, as well as online. “All employees, regardless of abilities, come with their own set of challenges and needs. As long as there is flexibility on the part of the employer, it really is no different than hiring anyone else,” says company CEO and dog lover Vicky Sylvester.