A new study shows both up and down trends in workplace flexibility at U.S. workplaces. Employers should start asking if that’s good for business.
Although some aspects of workplace flexibility have gained traction over the past seven years, many others have failed to catch on or have lost ground.
That’s the news from the Families and Work Institute, a nonprofit research organization based in New York City. For the past 14 years, the institute has been surveying employers across a nationally representative group of U.S. employers to monitor policies and practices that support productivity and a high quality of life for employees. It’s the only organization that’s been asking these questions long-term. The institute’s 2012 National Study of Employers—the fourth in the series—provides insights about today’s workplaces and tracks shifts for better or worse since 2005.
One example of positive change since the last survey is the increase in the percent of organizations that allow at least some of their employees to work some of their regular paid hours at home on an occasional basis. Just under two-thirds do; nearly double the share in 2005. Another promising trend is an increase in those that allow at least some employees to periodically change starting and quitting times within some range of hours. More than three-quarters are now offering that option.
The percent of workplaces offering other types of flexible work options stayed the same or even declined. For example, only a third of employers now allow at least some employees to work some of their regular paid hours at home on a regular basis—a figure that has scarcely moved since 2005. The percentage of employers allowing at least some employees to phase into retirement has also held steady, at only a little more than half. And, the institute’s report documents declines since 2005 in employers that allow at least some employees to work part-year on an annual basis, to take sabbaticals, and to take a career break to attend to personal or family responsibilities.
It’s 2012. What’s happening?
A survey conducted by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work in 2007 found that approximately 40 percent of the nearly 600 employers that responded reported that they encountered the following barriers when they considered implementing flexibility policies and practices:
- concerns about abuse of policies (42.3 percent)
- concerns about the reactions of customers and clients (41.2 percent)
- difficulties supervising employees who work in a flexible manner (40.9 percent)
- concerns about loss of productivity (40.6 percent)
- concerns about treating all employees equally (40.1 percent)
Employers across the country have found effective solutions to these concerns. Some of these leading organizations have received the Sloan Alfred P. Sloan Awards for Excellence in Workplace Effectiveness and Flexibility.
So, it’s time for employers to take the next step—a running step—to catapult over at least some of these perceived barriers. The next move could be straightforward, easy to implement, and relevant to a broad range of work situations.
What’s the bold idea?
What if supervisors across the country periodically asked their employees, “Does your work schedule help you to be productive and effective at work? Does your schedule suit your personal and family responsibilities?” Although supervisors cannot (and should not) set up expectations that they’ll always be able change schedules, don’t employers want to know whether schedule adjustments and other flexibility options can contribute to a workforce that is engaged, performing well, and committed to the organization?
Good supervisors already check in with their staffs periodically to see whether their employees are on track to meet their metrics, to take a pulse of workplace dynamics, and to gauge levels of job satisfaction. It wouldn’t take much more effort for supervisors to assess the job flexibility fit. This small change could have a big impact.