Workplace Flexibility Common; Training in Its Use Is Not

Work/life expert urges employers to employ ‘intentional flexibility’

By Kathy Gurchiek May 30, 2014

Most full-time U.S. workers had some form of workplace flexibility in 2013 compared to a year earlier, but more than 4 in 10 think their employers’ commitment to flexibility is waning, according to a recent survey.

The latest research from Flex+Strategy Group/Work+Life Fit Inc. (FSG/WLF) found that 97 percent of 556 respondents could determine when, where and how they worked. That majority extended across all demographic groups—men and women, workers with and without children, those who live alone and those with more than one person in the household.

However, there was a nearly equal split on how they described their employer’s commitment to flexibility—46 percent said it was strong, and 45 percent said it was possibly weakening. Among those who thought the commitment was waning, 20 percent said it was evident their company reduced flexibility, 5 percent heard rumors or noticed signs of a decreased commitment and 20 percent said their employers are committed for now, but that could change.

“It's not just Yahoo, Best Buy and Bank of America that have sent mixed signals on flexibility in the past year or so,” the report notes. “Despite the fact that almost all full-time employees [that were surveyed] had some type of work/life flexibility in the last year, employees see and sense employer ambivalence toward work/life flexibility.”

What’s lacking is training or guidance on how to manage work/life flexibility, said Cali Williams Yost during a May 21, 2014, webcast, “Intentional Flexibility: 5 Steps to Move Beyond Ambivalence.”

Yost is CEO and founder of FSG/WLF, and the author of Tweak It: Make What Matters to You Happen Every Day (Center Street, 2013) and Work+Life: Finding the Fit That’s Right for You (Riverhead, 2004). She will present the concurrent session “Harnessing Flexibility for High Performance and Well-Being” during the 2014 Society for Human Resource Management Annual Conference & Exposition in Orlando in June.

Yost advised organizations to analyze how, when and where employees are working and use those findings to develop a strategic approach to work/life flexibility. This includes providing guidance and training that helps employees do their best both on and off the job while helping the business improve productivity, reduce costs and increase employee morale and engagement.

This training is important because the boundaries between work and personal life “have essentially disappeared,” Yost pointed out, noting that more than half of the workers (57 percent) did not receive training or guidance on how to manage workplace flexibility.

Those who did not receive training were more likely to say it was evident their employer reduced work/life flexibility; the 40 percent who did receive guidance/training were more likely to say their employer had a strong commitment to flexibility.

“What that means to me is most workers are kind of flying by the seat of their pants and aren’t optimizing their flexibility for that reason,” Yost said. Simply providing flexibility as an option, or the technology, like a laptop, is not enough, she noted.

“Strategic, intentional flexibility is a partnership. We have to figure out how to strengthen that partnership” and maximize workplace flexibility so it’s as important to a business as is a strategy to develop new products or identify new markets, she said.

Used strategically, employers evaluate and improve upon how flexibility is used for their organization, guidelines are developed, and awards and performance management are aligned with its proper use, according to Yost.

“Managers need to be given tools to effectively manage a flexible work environment”—as well as HR professionals, teams and individuals, she said. First, though, managers need to be trained in how to oversee direct reports, such as giving consistent, ongoing feedback and setting goals and objectives for their group.

Other findings from the December 2013 telephone survey conducted by ORC International:

  • 55 percent of workplace flexibility was informal and occasional—reflecting changes in someone’s schedule or using a work location other than the employer’s office.
  • 42 percent of workers had a formally agreed-upon flexibility arrangement with their employer.
  • 23 percent reported their level of flexibility had increased over the previous year, 58 percent reported the same amount of flexibility and 16 percent reported less flexibility.
  • 62 percent cited obstacles—usually an increased work load—to work/life flexibility.

The FSG/WLF research is part of a biennial study first conducted in 2006 to monitor the national progress of issues related to work/life flexibility from the individual’s point of view.

Kathy Gurchiek is the associate editor at HR News.

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