Organizations benefit from building a culture of flexibility, suggests a new study of more than 3,100 U.S. workers of a multinational company. Its findings show that increased job flexibility is associated with a decrease in work-related impairments and improved job commitment over a one-year period.
“Flexibility is good business practice,” conclude researchers Joseph Grzywacz, Ph.D., at Wake Forest University (WFU) School of Medicine in Winston-Salem, N.C.,and then-student Patrick R. Casey.
“The challenge for managers is how to build flexibility into the organization.”
Evidence linking flexibility to health-related outcomes has been limited or inconsistent, they point out in their paper that appeared in the January 2008 issue of The Psychologist-Manager Journal.
This has “made it difficult for managers to determine if implementing flexible work arrangements or promoting a culture of flexibility will be beneficial for their organizations,” they contend.
Their findings “suggest that flexibility at work,” in either how it’s scheduled or the location where it’s performed, “benefits health-related outcomes with clear bottom-line implications for business.”
Schedule flexibility includes such things as compressed work weeks, flex-time and part-time options; location flexibility deals with working remotely from other than the main office or work site.
While their findings associated flexibility with an increased willingness to put in extra effort and decreased the affect health problems or complications had on an employee’s work, they weren’t able to link flexibility to improving sickness-related absences.
Grzywacz thinks that may have to do with the respondents studied.
“By and large, they just weren’t sick,” he said. All respondents participated in an annual health risk appraisal as part of the wellness program at pharmaceutical company GlaxoSmithKline. The study’s data was gathered by the company from the 2004 and 2005 health risk appraisals.
The company also provides a paid time off bank, rather than designated sick days, adding to the difficulty of measuring sickness-related absence, according to Grzywacz.
The findings are based on data the company gathered in 2004 and 2005 from 3,193 mostly white (80 percent), married (73 percent) U.S. workers. The average respondent was 40 years old, and nearly half had children age 21 or younger covered by their health plan. The appraisal asked for responses to statements such as “I have the flexibility I need to meet my work, personal, and family commitments.”
The WFU research was supported through a grant from the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, whose interests include the workplace, workforce and working families.
Despite a growing awareness of the importance of a work/life balance, workers and employers often are at odds over the issue, according to an August 2007 Monster Work/Life Balance Survey of 506 HR professionals and 830 workers across the country.
Only 29 percent of workers rated their employers' work/life balance initiatives as good or excellent and 58 percent said their employer encourages working too much.
About half of the HR professionals considered a work/life balance an important initiative for their employers; 61 percent think there will be more employer-provided work/life balance initiatives in five years, and about half think their organization acquires more qualified candidates because of their work/life balance initiatives.
Monster’s findings—that what employees want or need in flexibility is not necessarily what companies are providing—doesn’t surprise Grzywacz.
“It's a very complicated issue,” he told SHRM Online. “Flexibility as a phenomenon is very complicated both from the point of view of what people want and need, and how organizations can implement and manage it that is both productive for the employee and the organization."
Offering flexibility also is “something of a paradigm shift” for organizations, he observed, noting “that the vast majority of corporate America has not engaged in it yet.”
The majority of U.S. workers are employed at small companies with 250 or less people that overall “haven't bought into it or may not have the resources to buy into it.”
Providing employees with the technological connectivity to telecommute, for example, raises budgetary issues and the question of who should shoulder that burden.
Workers like the idea of flexibility because it gives them control over their schedule, which can take a variety of forms, he noted.
“However, that imposes a whole new set of management structures and management processes,” Grzywacz said. For the employer, “it's easier to work as a system or a team when everyone is on the same page or same general location.”
When everyone is “all in the same spot at the same time, managing their work is logistically simple.”
What Employers Can Do
Organizations can create a culture of flexibility, the authors say, by offering a variety of alternative work arrangements. At the employers they studied, part-time, remote work and flex-time scored the highest in employees’ perception of flexibility, while workers on a compressed schedule “apparently feel constrained by their work arrangement.”
Grzywacz and Casey advocate the following for creating a culture of flexibility:
- Train managers and supervisors to be accepting and supportive of workers’ lives outside the office.
- Provide personal time banks instead of a specified number of sick and vacation days.
- Improve manager-employee communication so workers better understand the organization’s policies and available resources.
A Hewitt survey found around 27 percent of 90 U.S. organizations surveyed communicate their flexibility programs and educate employees about those programs.
The WFU researchers also suggest visiting the When Work Works web site at http://whenworkworks.org, which the Families and Work Institute and Sloan Foundation created. It contains tips and a report containing case studies of different companies that have been recognized for excellence in flexibility.
Another resource is the 2008 Guide to Bold New Idea for Making Work Work that the Families and Work Institute released in April. It contains initiatives from 129 Sloan award-winning organizations located in 24 communities that represent 30 percent of the U.S. population.
“Flexibility does not [need] to be seen as a single silver bullet for a single problem or type of problem. Flexibility serves multiple endpoints for the organization,” Gryzwacz said.
While it’s traditionally viewed as an HR issue, he pointed out, “flexibility is not a solely work/life issue,” he told SHRM Online.
“It’s a stress issue, it’s a health promotion issue, it’s a retention tool,” a productivity and job commitment issue. “It can serve a variety of needs.”
Kathy Gurchiek is associate editor for HR News. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.