Home improvement retailer Home Depot was a pioneer in offering flex time policies for Olympic athletes it employed, working closely with the U.S. Olympic Committee from 1992 to 2009 to develop HR policies to support the complex needs of employee-athletes balancing sports training and work schedules, according to Reuters. Indeed, so closely connected are Home Depot and U.S. Olympic athletes that satirical website The Onion ran a 2012 spoof just before the London Summer Olympics with the headline. "Team USA Devastated After Home Depot Refuses to Let Athletes Take Time Off for Olympics."

Joking aside, Olympian employees going for gold need more scheduling flexibility than most employees.

How ***'s Sporting Goods Accommodates Its Olympians

Sporting goods retailer ***'s Sporting Goods has picked up where Home Depot left off, creating a Contender program in 2015 that introduced flex time policies for its Olympic athlete-employees and hopefuls. According to the Arizona Republic, the retailer has employed about 200 Olympic athletes and hopefuls since it started Contenders. "We have these amazing, incredibly inspiring people in our stores, interacting with people every day," says Ryan Eckel, vice president of brand marketing at ***'s Sporting Goods. "They just generate so much pride within the company," inspiring co-workers and customers alike.

***'s allows their Olympic athletes to take time off for competitions, and helps accommodate them with flexible work schedules to allow them to train during the day. As U.S. Olympian cyclist and Contender Chris Murphy explains on Team USA's website, "***'s Sporting Goods is truly a company that understands that we athletes face an uphill battle every day and support us more than any other entity could. Beyond just earning money to pay bills and save up for sporting expenses, there is relief of knowing that we have a steady job to return to after long international competition blocks or training camps, and that we don't have to compromise our daily training schedules."

A recent Wall Street Journal article also highlighted U.S. Olympic team fencer (and IT consultant for Deloitte) Gerek Meinhardt. "As the qualification process for Rio picked up this year, Mr. Meinhardt shifted to a four-day week and a lighter workload," said the WSJ article. "On Tuesdays and Thursdays, he spent full days working with clients on-site or at Deloitte's office in San Francisco. On Mondays and Wednesdays, he telecommuted, which allowed him to spend more time training."

Treating All Employees as Olympians

Organizations that support flexibility get employee engagement in return. While ***'s Sporting Goods and Deloitte may highlight their Olympians in order to publicize their commitment to "their most valuable assets," their employees, those employees return the favor with outspoken loyalty. What could make better sense than a sporting goods retailer putting world-class athletes as employees inside its stores? Those athlete-employees literally live the mission of the organization, inspiring both co-workers and customers.

As organizations embrace the struggles of their Olympian employees, providing them with the flexibility to pursue their dreams, they also get to connect Olympian accomplishments to their own brands, crafting great stories and win-win relationships for all involved.

But all employees want flexibility in order to balance the complexities of work and life. That impulse toward balance is no less powerful because the employees aren't going for Olympic gold. Employers that support their employee's dreams will have happier, more productive employees.

Flexible Mentalities and Technologies

As a report from the Society for Human Resource Management explains, offering flexibility can create benefits on all sides: for employee, organization and community. "More executives and managers recognize that workplace flexibility is critical for managing talent, maximizing productivity and achieving strategic goals. The latest research shows that many employers use workplace flexibility as a means of improving the bottom line as well as supporting employees' efforts to manage their work and family demands," per the report. Flexibility drives engagement, reduces employee stress and health-related costs and may even result in more hours worked (for example, telecommuters may work longer hours than workers dealing with long commutes).

Technology, of course, is driving both the demand for and availability of flexible working arrangements. Not only does technology allow an employee to access and work with the necessary data from home, but it also enables organizations to monitor employee performance and track their time worked. Meetings can happen remotely and so can collaboration.

Of course, flexibility presents a challenge for HR leaders in developing policies and systems to support it. But the benefits of flexibility — employee engagement and productivity — are simply too powerful to ignore. Besides, talent (especially younger-skewing talent) increasingly demand it. Olympic athletes aren't the only ones who need to balance the complexities of work and life and want their employers to support them with flexible policies. All employees want to be treated as gold medalists.

Tags: Productivity Employee Engagement