Little-Known Facts about Flexible Work Options

Posted Tuesday, April 26th, 2016  | Comments Off on Little-Known Facts about Flexible Work Options rule
Jacquelyn B. James
Co-director, Center on Aging & Work, Boston College
Research Professor, Lynch School of Education, Boston College

Even though many aspects of workplace flexibility are common knowledge, some have received scant attention and deserve more, because their effectiveness has been demonstrated clearly by research and practice. By the same token, other aspects—also seldom discussed—have negative consequences that should be recognized. Here are some examples.

Flexible work options can be appropriate for hourly and low-wage workers.

We tend to think of professional and managerial workers as prime beneficiaries of flexible work options, because many people in these jobs already make their own hours. In other jobs, such as retail sales and food service, flexible work options are unusual. The reason seems clear enough: Employers need to have workers on the job to keep stores and restaurants well-staffed during business hours. So add flexible work options to the list of benefits beyond the reach of low-wage workers that more privileged employees take for granted.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In 2008, Jennifer Swanberg, a professor of social work at the University of Maryland, and I surveyed hourly and professional employees of a national retail chain. Our CitiSales study (linked below) found that managerial support and innovative thinking made flexible work options realistic even for the chain’s low-wage hourly sales staff. Our study also showed that employees who have these options are more engaged in their work than those who don’t.

Flexible work options can happen even in the absence of organizational support.

In organizations that lack flexible work option policies, some managers implement them anyway—informally, but with commitment. These supervisors are “positive deviants,” going against the grain in the interests both of employees and the business. For example, one might tell an employee that it’s okay to take a longer lunch to check on an ailing parent, so long as the time can be made up later. Or a coworker might be allowed to swap shifts with a friend whose childcare fell through. Or an employee’s work schedule might be kept free on a given night so the employee can serve on the school board. Acts like these can be contagious in an organization when others see how well they work for the employee and the business.

Flexible work options (or the lack thereof) affect the whole work group, and sometimes those effects can be negative.

Most workers understand that the availability of flexible work options affects the whole group, not just the employees who uses them. On the plus side, these options—even to workers who don’t use them— are signals that the employer cares about the staff’s well-being. Thus, studies show  that policies used by only a few employees can have positive effects on the engagement and organizational commitment of the workforce as a whole.

Unfortunately, if the options aren’t well managed, their effects on the workforce can be negative. A worker might use a flexible work option again and again to trade for a more desirable shift, leaving others to take the undesirable shifts more often than they would otherwise. It’s easy to imagine the mounting dissatisfaction and resentment that such a policy could cause, if a supervisor did not step in to manage the fairness of the employee’s requests. As the results of this center’s Time & Place Management study show, successful flexible work options need to be actively managed. Both supervisors and workers need to understand that “no” can be a legitimate answer to a request for a flexible work option, if the effects on the work group would be counterproductive.

Painting the benefits of flexible work options with a broad brush can have a negative impact on morale, too. Employers and workers need to understand that, although flexible work options can be a win-win proposition, they work best with careful and ongoing management.

For employers

Benchmark yourself against similar employers in flexible work options, as well as other policies, and get customized tips: Workforce Benchmark Tool

Learn more

About Flexible Work Options: Quick Insights from the 2015 Talent Management Study
About Schedule Flexibility in the Workplace: Employee Access and Use, Implementation and Effectiveness
About the CitySales Study: Study Description
About the Time & Place Management Study: Study Description

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Passion, Purpose, and Impact: The Encore Secret Sauce

Posted Wednesday, April 6th, 2016  | Comments Off on Passion, Purpose, and Impact: The Encore Secret Sauce rule
Jim Emerman
Jim Emerman Executive Vice President,
Guest Blogger, The Center on Aging & Work at Boston College

About a year ago, I asked in AGEnda if wisdom that deepens with age, when joined with a passion for leaving the world a better place, translate into a unique path to social impact. Is there a special “encore career” secret sauce, one that allows someone with maturity and the desire to give back to have a super-sized impact?

At the time,, where I work, was embarking on research to see whether programs that use what we call “encore talent” experience forms of impact that make a sometimes unexpected and often substantial difference.

Two recent reports suggest the answer is yes.

Masters in Service to Society

The first, “The Encore Talent Impact Project: A Study of Encore Talent at Work,” reports on the observations of more than 100 supervisors and managers in social-purpose organizations on the impact of nearly 1,700 people in encore roles. One of the biggest surprises from the data is that many introduced improvements conventionally associated with the work of full-time, paid staff—such as contributing new approaches, tools, and ideas to the organization.

The second, “Doing Good by Doing Well: Encore Fellows Build Nonprofits’ Capacity to Serve Children and Youth,” reports on three case studies. The author, Jacquelyn B. James, co-director of Boston College’s Center on Aging and Work (which hosts the AGEnda blog), teases out the dynamics whereby Encore fellows (participants in the Encore Fellowships Network, who serve one-year, stipended fellowships) combine business skills acquired over decades in the private sector with personal attributes to deliver exceptional value to the organizations they serve. For example, across all three cases, she noted that the fellows brought an ability to organize networks and groups, patience with process, good listening and negotiation skills, and a generally high level of emotional maturity.

Here’s that recipe for the “encore secret sauce.” The attributes that Dr. James observed are reflected precisely in the literature on mastery. And when we asked the respondents in our Encore Talent Impact survey whether the characteristics of mastery were present in the people they supervised, very high percentages said they were. For example,  more than 80 percent of these encore engagements were carried out by people who “successfully explained, mentored, coached and built relationships with others. 

Opening the Door to Encore Talent

It’s important to recognize that these characteristics, so tied to our notions of wisdom, translate into impact at a time when many people are rethinking the so-called “retirement years,” seeking instead to use their time and accumulated experience to improve their communities or to help future generations succeed.

We also know that often, abundant desire does not find its match in opportunity. According to 2014 research, 21.5 million people hope to move into social-purpose encore roles. But stubborn barriers still keep experienced adults from making the most of their talents in organizations that could benefit from them. Ageist stereotypes about the productivity of older people, whether in volunteer or paid roles, persist. And many nonprofits still won’t gamble on people coming to them from a corporate background. “They won’t fit in our culture,” they say.

It’s time to break down the barriers that keep talented people who want to serve from contributing to the nonprofit sector, which badly needs their talents. Nonprofits that understand the “secret sauce” of wisdom, experience, and mastery will welcome encore-stage adults in service of their mission. As these two reports illustrate, they’ll reap significant gains.

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