Advantages of Workplace Flexibility: A Global Appraisal

Posted Wednesday, March 20th, 2013  | Comments (3) rule

Work is what you do, not where you are.
      Martha Johnson, Administrator, U.S. General Services Administration

Rucha Bhate
Doctoral Research Assistant
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College

Phone: 617.552.6954

Marissa Mayer, the new chief executive of Yahoo, announced in February that employees would no longer be permitted to work remotely and would instead have to come into the office. According to the New York Times, “Yahoo’s policy change has unleashed a storm of criticism from advocates of workplace flexibility who say it is a retrograde approach, particularly for those who care for young children or aging parents.”

In the United States, where the majority of companies offer flexible work arrangements, Ms. Mayer’s decision clearly contradicts the mainstream. A global business survey ranked the United States among the top 10 countries hospitable to workplace flexibility. In Japan, Yahoo’s crackdown would be less surprising; there, only 18 percent of companies allow flexible schedules.

The differences in acceptance of workplace flexibility from one country to another are especially interesting, given that the incentives for companies to adopt workplace flexibility arise at least in part from globalization. The international scope of business demands an ever-increasing reliance on modern technology and social networking tools, making the division between work and play fuzzier. Most Americans would agree that we need to reinterpret and expand the traditional (and somewhat rigid) ideas of where, when, and how we work. An employer’s sensitivity and receptivity to workplace flexibility signal to employees that their boss is willing to address and accommodate their diverse needs and help them achieve work/life balance. Employers here and in the other top-10 countries use flexibility as an innovative human resource tool to attract and retain the best people in the global talent pool. Potential operational benefits of workplace flexibility such as reduced overhead costs on real estate and energy, lower job turnover, and higher productivity can also pave the way for favorable employee outcomes, such as better work/life balance, increased work engagement, and greater job satisfaction.

Against the backdrop of these incentives, researchers at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work wondered about variations in perceptions of workplace flexibility around the world.

The results of a survey we undertook in 2009-2010 revealed some illuminating contrasts across countries in employee perceptions of benefits that are key to workplace flexibility. As we expected, employees in the United States demonstrated the most* widespread agreement about the paybacks of workplace flexibility. Japan, at the other end of the spectrum, had the lowest score. Interestingly enough, two developed/developing country pairs (the United States and India; the United Kingdom and Brazil) exhibited very similar flexibility scores, suggesting that awareness of the advantages of workplace flexibility is not confined to high-income countries. Everywhere, females, employees with caregiving responsibilities, and employees with graduate degrees responded more favorably to flexible work, underscoring the influence of social parameters on workplace flexibility.

The variations we found in employees’ perceptions of workplace flexibility defy a one-size-fits-all human resources approach. Ideally, flexibility policies ought to be culture- and employee-specific. Periodically, employers need to evaluate the divergence between policy and practice to generate maximum leverage. After all, carefully designed and efficiently implemented workplace flexibility policy can and should benefit employers and employees alike.

For more information about research on employee perceptions of workplace flexibility, click here.

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Is the Tide Turning Against Flexible Work?

Posted Monday, March 18th, 2013  | Comments Off on Is the Tide Turning Against Flexible Work? rule
The following blog is reposted with permission from The Huffington Post
Pitt-Catsouphes Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, PhD
Sloan Center on Aging & Work
Associate Professor
Graduate School of Social Work &
Caroll School of Management, Boston College
Sweet Stephen Sweet, PhD
Research Fellow
Sloan Center on Aging & Work
Associate Professor of Sociology
Ithaca College

Recently, employees at two major companies — Yahoo! and Best Buy — learned that they will no longer have as much discretion over where and when to work. Do the actions of these two firms indicate that the tide has turned against flexible work?

Many of our colleagues (ourselves included) present cases for flexible work, arguing that these arrangements are well-aligned with the global, 24/7 business world and offer a needed resource to working families. “Good flexibilities” offer supervisors and employees opportunities to move work (either in time or place) or reduce work to match demands of life on and off the job. Three decades of research makes clear that these types of flexibilities can support productivity and create more harmony between work and family commitments.

It is important to understand that workplace flexibility is more than working from home. Comprehensive flexibility creates opportunities to synchronize work and life. Working from home is only one strategy among a wide variety of flexible options that can be explored and implemented. Consider, for example, how a compressed work week or a variable schedule can be used in lieu of work-at-home arrangements.

A business case for flexibility exists, and studies (including notable ones of Best Buy) document benefits such as decreased absenteeism, lower turnover, and enhanced employee satisfaction. Ignoring these positive outcomes makes the elimination of flexible work options particularly troubling. Nevertheless, very few studies have crossed over all of the stepping stones, linking these types of positive outcomes with business-relevant metrics, such as sales performance, cost savings, and productivity. The jury is still out on the extent to which it is possible to measure the overall positive return on investment for an organization; what is clear, however, is that the work and home lives of individual employees can benefit in ways that matter to employers.

Corporate “pull back” from workplace flexibility is even more worrisome because there are indicators that availability has often been overestimated. Nearly all employers have flex options on the books, but the typical workplace does not operate like Yahoo! or Best Buy did. Relatively few employers make a large variety of flex options widely available to their workforces. And when flexibility is offered, most commonly it is the option to move work around. Far less often do workers have options to reduce the volume of labor or to take career time-outs. The reality is that American workplaces continue to be remarkably inflexible for most workers, so researchers have yet to document the full extent of what flexibility has to offer.

Ironically, when flex options are available, they tend to be allocated to the more advantaged members of the labor force (including men and professionals). But even among these advantaged members, there is a difference between a flexibility that is on the books versus one that is truly usable. Once the career costs of using flexible work options are included in the calculations, true availability diminishes even further. And not all flexibility is “good flexibility.” Employees in the fast food and retail sectors are among those that are most apt to have flexible work arrangements. However, on deeper inquiry it becomes apparent that they often get “bad flexibilities” that are not solution-focused choices made by supervisors and employees together. This results in unpredictable schedules that offer too little (rather than too much) work. Statistical estimates of wide-scale flex availability belie these qualitative observations.

Without doubt, today’s workplaces offer more flexible work options than they did in the 1970s and prior, but the trajectory of progress may have plateaued. Some industries, most notably those operating in the manufacturing sector, are still remarkably inflexible in their talent management practices. By comparing two national studies of employers, we found that the average company in 2006 offered 4 flexible options to most or all of their employees. In 2009, this had declined to 2 options. And declines happened across different industry sectors.

Despite a darkening horizon suggested by the press coverage of Best Buy and Yahoo!, there are great examples of companies that support local decision-making about flex options and that encourage managers and their employees to consider options that support work objectives. State Street Corporation was recently recognized by the WorldatWork’s Alliance for Work-Life Progress for its innovative program of Manager Initiated Flex. This program encourages managers to initiate conversations about whether work schedules, work hours, and the location of work can better assist not just employees, but State Street as well. The underlying principle of this program is that business problems — including work schedules — are best solved by talking about them. This illustrates a simple, direct, and effective approach to a complex issue.

Most employers expand flexibility because they believe that it will bring positive returns. The reality is that few employers are positioned to gather the data on what can be achieved, or what is achievable over the long term. If the bottom line moves upward for Yahoo! and Best Buy, do not be too quick to conclude that too much flexibility was at fault for their current problems, or that the removal of flexibility was the solution.

If the wave of enthusiasm for flexibility is subsiding, the tide of changing employee needs and expectations is not retreating. Companies are well advised to gauge the waters before concluding that they have become too flexible or are not flexible enough.

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Goodbye Telecommuting, Hello Success?
How Marissa Mayer Can Evaluate Her Decision at Yahoo

Posted Wednesday, March 6th, 2013  | Comments (9) rule

Chris Morett, PhD, MPP
Office of Scheduling and Space Management, Rutgers University
Research Fellow
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Phone: 848-932-4312

When word got out that Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer abolished working from home, the reaction was intense and, with relatively few exceptions, strongly negative. I’m hesitant to lob criticisms at Mayer, though, in part because I can’t claim to know more about her company or the tech sector than she.

I want, instead, to pose some questions. Mayer was clear in her reasons for ending telecommuting-mainly that physical proximity all day, every day, creates a cauldron of creativity and innovation. But there are other questions that would be interesting to answer.

First, how quickly does the marginal benefit of each additional hour at the workplace decline? Assuming a declining marginal benefit, did Yahoo consider a partial end to telecommuting-maybe requiring three days a week in the office? (Or, for more remote employees, 10 or 12 working days a month?) Even two days off would help workers with parents or young children or others who need flexibility, older workers, perhaps?

Second, how will Yahoo evaluate this new policy? What processes and outcomes will be assessed? Will it measure the things that critics claim will suffer, such as recruitment, retention, and worker productivity in their daily tasks? See, for example, the article quoting Brad Harrington, Executive Director of Boston College’s Center on Family and Work.

Third, will the benefit calculation be based on a comparison with the workplace as it was, or with some other alternatives that also could have facilitated collaboration? Mayer may be familiar with one simple but effective tool used at my workplace-Google Docs.

Fourth, speaking of the cost-benefit analysis, how thoroughly has Yahoo considered the costs? Put another way, the memo read, in part, “For the rest of us who occasionally have to stay home for the cable guy, please use your best judgment in the spirit of collaboration.” Did Yahoo consider an alternate version of that, such as, “For the rest of us who occasionally take our parents to chemotherapy or accompany them when they are going to the doctor to learn whether they are terminal or not, please use your best judgment…”?

I’m sure Yahoo would protest and say it didn’t mean to impugn time off for those kinds of issues. Even so their emblem of a personal obligation was trivial, and it effectively obliterated reality. Yahoo can demand anything it wants, but it portrayed the sacrifice it is asking for in what seems like a willfully blithe manner.

Finally, if some employees abused Yahoo’s work-from-home policy, would it make more sense to change how the policy was implemented, rather than view it as a failed policy?

These questions are not only fair, but in Yahoo’s best interests. What, then, are the chances of an accurate and actionable self-assessment? Confidence is not inspired by the fact that, to the extent this is about work ethic—and at least one source said it is—the company is resorting to a metric born in a bygone era: face time. That doesn’t exactly suggest a keen interest in careful organizational self-assessment. On the other hand, the spotlight in which Yahoo operates not only invites criticism but also a lot of free advice. Indeed, the two are often one and the same. One hopes Yahoo utilizes the insights and opinions others offer up.

I admit, I hope Yahoo changes its mind about telecommuting. I also hope Yahoo succeeds financially. Fortunately, good evidence suggests these two outcomes are not mutually exclusive.

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Flexibility Works, When Done Right

Posted Wednesday, March 6th, 2013  | Comments (2) rule
The following blog is reposted with permission from The Huffington Post
Kathleen E. Christensen, PhD
Program Director
Alfred P. Sloan Foundation

Phone: 212.649.1649

Yahoo’s recent move announcing a blanket ban on employees working remotely has caused quite a stir in the tech community and around the web. When Lisa Belkin wrote about the subject this weekend, more than 800 people commented and thousands upon thousands have shared her blog post. The fact that people far beyond Yahoo’s offices are moved to chime in is not surprising to me–employers and employees alike have developed strong opinions in recent years about the personal benefits and business imperatives of offering flexibility in when, where and how work gets done.

What does surprise me about the Yahoo decision is that a multi-billion-dollar, multinational Internet company would take such a simplistic approach to an immensely important business decision. What is most concerning about the Yahoo decision is not just that the company wants to curb remote working, but that they deem it appropriate to make one blanket decision affecting 14,000 employees, rather than providing managers with the flexibility and tools they need to find the right solution for every employee.

In a letter to Yahoo employees posted on All Things D, the company’s HR director wrote, “some of the best decisions and insights come from hallway and cafeteria discussions, meeting new people, and impromptu team meetings.” This is certainly true, which is why no one has ever argued that every job at every company should be completed remotely all of the time. But when the letter goes on to say that, “speed and quality are often sacrificed when we work from home,” the company is unfortunately ignoring decades of research showing the business benefits of workplace flexibility.

What makes remote work arrangements function well (or not) is the same thing that makes a traditional workplace succeed: good management. The recent 2013 Guide to Bold New Ideas for Making Work Work published by When Work Works, a joint project of the Families and work Institute and the Society for Human Resources Management profiles promising and innovative practices from 246 employers that are creating effective and flexible workplaces to make work “work” better for both the bottom line and for employees. Notably, Silicon Valley and tech companies in general are leading the way in providing diverse solutions that work for all employees., for example, not only offers generous maternity/paternity leave, but pairs it with comfortable on-site lactation rooms for new mothers when they do return to work. Microsoft, with 54,000 employees in the U.S., provides a full array of options through its Flexible Work Arrangement program, including job sharing, compressed workweeks and mobile workspaces. Intel allows many of its full-time employees to move to part-time work on a temporary basis while retaining full access to the company’s benefits and professional development programs. The result is less burnout, lower turnover, and, as in all of these cases, higher productivity that boosts the company’s bottom line.

With all these case studies of innovative workplace programs that provide business benefits, it is mind-boggling that we are still having the simplistic conversation: ‘is remote work good or bad?’ It’s not a matter of whether working from home is better or worse than working in the office–it’s about finding the right fit for each job.

Are there employees at Yahoo whose work is best completed at a physical office on a traditional nine-to-five schedule? I’m sure there are. Is this the best work structure for all 14,000 of their employees? Certainly not. The one thing that is abundantly clear is that there is no one-size-fits-all-solution. Some jobs are suited to the traditional nine-to-five, in-office structure; others are not. The companies that succeed in the 21st century will be those that provide good management and find innovative solutions that work for every employee.

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