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Ken Matos, senior director of employment research and practice, Families and Work Institute

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Interview by Joseph Coombs, SHRM Workplace Trends and Forecasting Specialist

Job security and compensation are traditionally among the most frequently cited factors in determining employees’ job satisfaction. Do you think flexible work options are becoming as important as these factors, and why?

That’s a bit of a chicken and egg question, and it assumes that job security, compensation and flexible work options are completely separate things. When a job is inflexible, employees are confronted with some tough choices that affect their evaluations of their job security and compensation. Lacking the flexibility to pick up a child from school can reduce net wages if the only alternative is expensive child care. Similarly, an ill or injured employee who cannot take time away from work to recover without fear of losing his or her job is likely to have low job security. For employees in these and similar situations, there’s no real difference between flexibility, job security and compensation, because their inflexible work arrangements are creating unnecessary costs and threats to their continued employment.

It is, therefore, not surprising to find that most employees indicate that all three of these things are important when considering a new job. The results of the 2008 National Study of the Changing Workforce conducted by the Families and Work Institute (FWI) show that 87% of wage and salary employees feel that “having the flexibility I need to manage my work and personal or family life” is extremely or very important in choosing to take a new job. Job security (91%) and being paid well (89%) were only a little more frequently cited. Furthermore, our data also show that these factors all are part of an effective workplace, so we should think of them together.

For employers, flexibility represents a great opportunity to help employees cut these unnecessary costs and feel secure in their jobs without increasing wages. The upcoming book by SHRM and FWI, Workflex: The Essential Guide to Effective and Flexible Workplaces, is filled with an amazing array of examples, how-to information and tools to help employers set up and maintain flexible work arrangements that help meet their needs and the needs of their employees.

Recent research has shown more men want telecommuting, flexible schedules and other options to obtain a better fit between work and home responsibilities. Do men’s and women’s expectations of flexible work differ at all, and how so?

There are some general differences in the experience of flexibility for the average man or woman. For example, data from FWI’s Elder Care Study: Everyday Realities and Wishes for Change has shown that while men and women provide elder care in roughly equal numbers, women are more likely than men to provide care on a regular than an intermittent basis and spend more time overall providing care. Yet our data also show that men experience more work-family conflict than women, which is related to the pressures they feel to be breadwinners and involved in family life.

Though these and other differences between men and women exist, they are still generalities that may have little to no bearing on any specific employee experience that an HR professional is likely to face. Any employee, man or woman, can be a primary caregiver, be faced with elder care responsibilities or desire more time to pursue an advanced education. In addition, employees have complex lives that may require different types of flexibility at different times in their lives and careers. Elder care issues are an excellent example of this phenomenon, as an employee may be more or less engaged in elder care responsibilities as the elder’s need for support waxes and wanes.

HR professionals are better served by considering the kinds of work-life challenges all their employees might face and how the organization can contribute to an effective solution for both the employee and employer rather than focusing on the gender of the employees. For example, employers should ask themselves how the organization can support any employee with regular and intermittent care responsibilities over long and short periods of time. When the focus is on the nature of the challenge rather than the demographics of the person having the challenge, the organization can develop more holistic strategies that work for both men and women.

The labor market remains in a slow-growth mode, but many companies are doing well financially and have squeezed more work out of existing staff. At what point does this prove harmful for an employer, and what are ways to avoid damaging employee morale?

There’s no concrete point at which “squeezing” employees becomes harmful for the employer because there’s so much variation in employers and employees and what each is ready, willing and able to give in tough times. Similarly, the point at which an employee feels burdened rather than challenged by new demands varies across employees at different points in their lives and careers. The only way to determine when high expectations become overwhelming expectations is to maintain open communication between employers and employees, where everyone is able to discuss personal and organizational needs in tandem without fear of seeming uncommitted.

How employers go about motivating employees to put in the extra effort can seriously affect long-term outcomes for both employees and employers. In order to minimize the negative effects on morale, employee health and future turnover, it’s important to be open with employees, explain the context of any difficult decisions and offer them a chance to speak constructively about the issue and to work toward mutually beneficial solutions.

When employees are asked to collaborate with their employers on how to work through tough times, there’s a much greater potential for both to reap real benefits. Employees will appreciate having the situation and the process by which management is coming to decisions explained to them, especially if they have the chance to have input into that process. When employers are both open and flexible, it’s possible to establish systems that help employers and employees make the most of tough situations. For example, employees may prefer job sharing to layoffs if it’s presented as an opportunity to help themselves, their co-workers and the organization succeed. When employees have to work extra hours, flexibility around start, stop and break times, as well as remote work, can help those employees keep their new demands at work in alignment with their personal/family lives.

Finally, it’s important to consider the experience of line managers. They, too, will be experiencing pressure to help the organization succeed and will have the difficult task of bridging the interests of employees, management, clients and customers. Providing them with support and flexibility to address their own work-life needs will be equally important so that they remain empathetic and respectful of the employees with whom they work. Even if tough decisions are needed to keep an organization successful, approaching those decisions openly with respect for the whole life of each employee (including managers) will keep morale high and discourage turnover once the economy improves.

Do workers who belong to effective and flexible workplaces have a certain advantage over other employees?

Effective and flexible workplaces are comprised of six factors that benefit both the employee and the organization: 1) job challenge and learning, 2) supervisor task support, 3) job autonomy, 4) climate of respect and trust, 5) economic security, and 6) work-life fit.

In our 2009 report, The State of Health in the American Workforce: Does Having an Effective Workplace Matter?, we define these six factors in detail and report that employees with more effective and flexible workplaces have greater job engagement, job satisfaction, probability of retention and estimates of overall health than employees in workplaces with less effective and flexible workplaces. On the other hand, the employees in effective workplaces also report lower general stress levels and lower frequencies of minor health problems, signs of depression and sleep problems than employees in less effective workplaces. When employees are healthier and more inclined to remain with their employers, the employer is likely to have lower health care and turnover costs.

We believe that effective workplaces contribute to employee outcomes by allowing employees to collaborate with co-workers and supervisors to develop more efficient ways to get work done that is less taxing on the resources and health of both the employee and the organization. For example, when employees can safely and comfortably approach supervisors to discuss a change to workflow, the organization has the opportunity to evolve into a more efficient system. The new system is better attuned to the needs of both the employees and the employer and is, therefore, less stressful and more satisfying.

All the studies mentioned in this interview can be downloaded at Workflex: The Essential Guide to Effective and Flexible Workplaces is scheduled to be released in the fall 2012.


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