Workplace Flexibility Still a Pipe Dream for Most

Study shows flexible-work arrangements remain out of reach for most employees, and finds employers' options are still too limited.

Monday, April 7, 2014
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Despite all the research and rhetoric about the positives of workplace flexibility, recent data from the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College shows flexible arrangements aren't being offered to most employees, and finds employers' flexible-work options are too limited in scope and type to be effective.

The study, "Explaining Organizational Variation in Flexible Work Arrangements: Why the Pattern and Scale of Availability Matter," published in the February edition of Community, Work & Family, finds while most offer some form of flexibility, few provide these arrangements to the majority of their workers.

What's more, when flexibility is made available, it's usually designed to enable employees to move their work in time or location, but not to reduce work expectations or provide temporary leaves from jobs -- additional adjustments experts say are needed to fill out the entire option menu and truly meet the needs of today's more mobile, knowledge-based employees.

"The reality is that most workers in the United States have constrained choices in respect to options to reconfigure how, when, where or how much work is to be performed," the report states. Indeed, the poll of mostly chief human resource officers at 545 U.S. organizations finds only one in five companies offer more than one approach to workplace flexibility, despite the fact that different employees need different options.

"The take-home message here is 'our work isn't done,' " says Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, director of the Sloan Center, in Chestnut Hill, Mass.

She and her fellow authors - Stephen Sweet of Ithaca College (Ithaca, N.Y.), Elyssa Besen of the Center for Disability Research (Hopkinton, Mass.) and Lonnie Golden of Penn State Abington (Abington, Pa.) - argue that the most commonly applied standard of measuring the presence of flexible-work arrangements -- its availability to any workers in an organization -- is a far-too-lenient standard to gauge true availability.

For instance, in the research, when employers were asked if their organizations allow movable-work options to "any" employee (i.e., moving to another location or shifting hourly schedules), the poll established a mean number of 3.5 options per employer (mind you, this number includes those offering no such option as well). When researchers drilled deeper, asking if this option was available to "most or all" employees, that mean number went to .85, less than one movable option per organization.

Similar variances turn up in the numbers offering reduced work (1.70 the mean for options available to "any" versus .29 available to "most or all") and paused work, as in sabbaticals and leaves (.82 mean for "any" versus .22 for "most or all").

"We were expecting better numbers than these, considering how long many of these companies have had flexible-work options in place," says Pitt-Catsouphes. "The problem is, a lot of companies started this [flexible-work approach] in the 1980s [and haven't progressed much from there]. Oftentimes, you need to re-launch these things."

The authors were also surprised by the low number of flexible-work options employers are offering today. "We kind of anticipated more growth [and variety] in these options and didn't find that," says Pitt-Catsouphes.

"Flexibility continues to be such a win-win for companies and employees, it's just baffling that more companies aren't offering more options to more people today," she says. "Businesses are using the language of 'nimbleness' and being able to turn on a dime. [What they must not realize] is that flexible-work options for all employees helps them do that and remain competitive.

"If they're not offering a comprehensive package, available to everyone, then the take-up and participation is small and the employer says, 'Oh, this isn't working,' " she adds. "What we're saying is, flexibility can work if you make a commitment to making it work, and can support the productive engagement of older and younger workers [throughout the organization]."

Although statistics from the New York-based Families and Work Institute's 2012 National Study of Employers suggest a greater number of options and programs being offered, even two years ago (59 percent of the 1,126 nationwide employers studied showing five to 10 options offered), improving the overall flexibility mind-set is still a much-needed goal going forward, according to FWI President and Co-Founder Ellen Galinsky.

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What's more, as she and her colleagues stress, offering more programs is not necessarily better than just one if it doesn't fit the culture, and the needs of the business, employees and community.

Indeed, says Galinsky, "the culture of flexibility is what is most important. It has to work for the employer and the employee."

"I think the best companies know that," she says. "Where companies get into trouble is when [flexible work] hasn't been implemented well. Flex is like any other aspect of work. It must be implemented well with mutual accountability."

Just like Sloan's research found, "our experience shows employers do offer flexibility to some, but not to most or all," Galinsky says.

"We're finding most employers are [still] offering [only] to upper-level employees," she says.

Galinsky agrees flexibility needs to be an all-encompassing, organizational commitment if it's going to drive corporate-wide engagement and productivity in today's knowledge- and service-based economy.

"I think there's no question that [the American workforce is] going to be more flexible [going forward] because of technology, what the younger workers want, [escalating] real-estate costs, etc.," she says, "but we have to change from thinking about this as a perk to advantaged employees [to seeing it as] a tool you use to [create and maintain that very] productive and engaged workforce. And this should not be an entitlement, but a responsibility," with everyone involved being held accountable.

So why aren't more employers on the "culture of flexibility" bandwagon? Galinsky thinks the answer is manifold. Flexible work is one component of such a culture. Trust and respect [for all employees] is another, she says, a factor significantly slowed by the fact that "we're still bogged down in the whole trust and face-time" dilemma. Managers need to be trained to think and manage differently to accommodate the new nimble, knowledge- and outcomes-based workforce.

And holding all that back, she adds, is the simple fact that "all change is slow."  

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