Interview by Joseph Coombs, SHRM Workplace Trends and Forecasting Specialist
Flexible work practices have become more popular in recent years, but what are the biggest barriers to their acceptance on a broader basis?
Yes, flexibility has become more popular in recent years, even during the recession. In fact, Families and Work Institute’s (FWI) 2009 study, The Impact of the Recession on Employers, found that most employers either maintained the workplace flexibility they offered (81%) or increased it (13%) during the recession; only 6% decreased flexibility. So in good economic times or bad, employers still need talent.
In the nationally representative study of employers we conduct with SHRM—the 2012 National Study of Employers (NSE)—we ask about obstacles in implementing work-life programs and policies. Note that these include not just flexibility but also child care and elder care assistance, health benefits, etc. That is important in light of the fact that the most frequently mentioned obstacles are cost (25%), job requirements and workloads that don’t allow for these programs (12%), a lack of staff to implement these programs (11%), a potential loss of productivity (10%), and difficulty supervising employees (10%). However, 5% report there are no obstacles. Additionally, 5% say work-life policies would be impractical, given their industry.
Many people think of telework when the discussion turns to flexible policies, but that option is not realistic in some workplaces. What are some of the other forms of flexible work that have proven to be effective?
First, there are many kinds of flexibility. FWI and SHRM are creating a resource guide and in it, we group the large variety of flexible options into seven categories:
Choices in Managing Time – includes control over one’s schedule and agreeing that the schedule or shift meets his or her needs.
Flex Time and Flex Place – includes traditional flexibility, daily flexibility (short-notice schedule changes), compressed workweeks, and working at home.
Reduced Time – includes full-timers who could arrange to work part time in their current position and part-timers who could arrange to work full time in their current position as well as part-year work.
Time Off – includes a lack of difficulty in taking time for personal or family matters, paid days off for personal illness, paid days off to care for sick children, time off for elder care without fear of losing one’s job, paid vacation time, paid holidays, time off for volunteering without the loss of pay, and caregiving leaves for birth, adoption and seriously ill family members.
Flex Careers – enable employees to dial up or dial down their careers by taking extended time off for caregiving or sabbaticals. They also enable employees to phase into retirement.
Dealing with Overwork – includes efforts to create reasonable work demands, to reduce unnecessary work and to create boundaries between life on and off the job.
Culture of Flexibility – includes not having to choose between advancement and devoting attention to family life, not having advancement jeopardized by asking for flexibility, and overall supervisor support when work-life issues arise.
In terms of which kinds of flexibility don’t work, we find that there is no one-size-fits-all solution. And that is why there are so many options! At best flexibility should work for both employers and employees. Thus, it is typically designed to solve a business problem, such as the need recruit or retain top talent or to increase staff coverage. The solution – the type of flexibility – must fit the needs of the organization and its employees.
Are there specific industries where flexible practices have been more popular, and why?
In the 2012 NSE, we look at this issue. We find that flexibility is most prevalent in finance, insurance and real estate, and in professional services. “Why?” is a great question! When I asked that of an accounting firm, the answer was, “We do the numbers. It’s good for our business.”
If you want further information about the prevalence of flexibility in various industries, FWI wrote a series of papers that looked at this issue for the Department of Labor’s Women Bureau as a follow up to a White House forum on workplace flexibility. All of those papers can be found at: http://familiesandwork.org/site/research/reports/main.html#workflexstatus
It can sometimes be difficult to measure the benefits of flexible work policies, so what offers the best proof that these measures are useful?
It is difficult. Our studies find that workplaces with greater flexibility are more likely to have employees who are more engaged, in better health, more satisfied with their jobs, and more likely to plan to remain on the job. However, these are correlations, not causal studies.
A number of companies have done studies before and after they have implemented greater flexibility. An example is Ryan LLC, headquartered in Dallas. They have found that voluntary turnover dropped dramatically, from 18.5% to 6.5% over three years. Involuntary turnover also dropped to 10%, compared with the industry average of 21%. At the same time, client service scores increased. Perhaps most impressively, their CEO Brint Ryan says, “In 2009, in arguably the worst economic conditions in my generation, we posted record profits and record revenue.”
Have you found that more workers and job seekers are judging companies based on their flexible work practices? Is this something that has become a standard expectation, alongside traditional benefits offered by employers?
FWI’s 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce found that 87% of all employees say that flexibility would be “extremely important” or “very important” to them if they were looking for a new job. This is not surprising, since U.S. employees are increasingly experiencing a time famine. Between 2002 and 2008, those saying they don’t have enough time for themselves rose from 55% to 60%; while those saying they don’t have enough time for their spouse climbed from 50% to 63%; and those saying they don’t have enough time for their children went up from 66% to 75%. Some people say that time has become the new currency.
It is well known that Millennials expect to work more flexibly, but so do older employees as they move toward retirement, and so do the 42% who had elder care responsibilities in the past five years. At one time or another, we will all need some flexibility.
I can’t say that seeking flexibility has become a standard expectation among job seekers yet, but it is well on its way to becoming one.