Flexible Work Options: 'Profound' Contradiction in Leaders' Attitudes

By Kathy Gurchiek Jun 16, 2011

Employees in emerging countries seem to be getting mixed messages from their workplace leaders about the use of work/life programs and policies, according to a 2011 report, Men and Work-Life Integration: A Global Study.

Workers in those countries—identified as Brazil, China and India—ranked their employers higher for giving them work/life support than workers in developed countries but reported a higher degree of stealth required to use those flexible work options.

The findings are from a report by WFD Consulting and WorldatWork’s Alliance for Work-Life Progress (AWLP). Both entities advocate for work/life integration as part of a total rewards strategy for organizations.

The report, released in May 2011, is based on a survey conducted in November and December 2010 with 2,312 workers in Brazil, China, India, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States. Respondents were from for-profit organizations with 500 or more employees.

The report uncovered conflicting attitudes workplace leaders have toward flexible work arrangements. While they recognize and endorse the economic and organizational benefits of work/life initiatives, they are reluctant to put flexible work options into action. They “believe there are real costs associated with implementing work-life initiatives, sending mixed messages about the use of those programs and policies,” according to the report.

‘Employers are just beginning
to realize that men … want
to have time for their families.’

—Ellen Galinsky

More than 80 percent of leaders in emerging and developed countries surveyed said work/life programs—including flexible work arrangements, dependent care support, health and wellness programs, and employee assistance programs—are important for recruitment, retention, and employee satisfaction and productivity.

However, nearly three-fourths of business leaders in emerging countries and almost half in developed countries said their ideal employee has few personal commitments and is available regardless of business hours. In emerging countries, female business leaders were more likely than male business leaders to hold this view; there was no such gender difference in developed countries.

“The contradiction in leadership attitudes was profound,” the report notes.

Male and female business leaders in emerging countries said their top concern about allowing an employee to use flexible work options was that the employee wouldn’t be available to meet an immediate business need, cited by 49 percent. Managers were more concerned about this than supervisors and executive leaders. That concern was followed by a fear among 41 percent that allowing work/life options would cause the work to fall on others in the team.

Business leaders in developed countries shared those top concerns when evaluating an employee’s request for a flexible work arrangement. Executives were more worried about accessibility than were managers and supervisors.

The only gender differences in this area are that female business leaders in emerging countries were more likely than their male counterparts to be concerned that work would fall on them if employees used work/life options, more time would be required of them and they would not know if employees were getting the work done.

Trust was an issue in emerging countries, with 37 percent of business leaders there concerned that they would not know if the employee using a flex option was working. Only 16 percent of business leaders in developed countries ranked this as a concern.

Business Leaders Wary

Business leaders are wary of permitting flexible work options because they view the risks as greater than the benefits, according to the report.

That’s because, the authors write, “many leaders simply do not have a concrete view of how work-life and, in particular, flexibility and work innovations … really operate.”

The findings might explain the contradictory rankings employees in emerging countries gave supervisors when they were asked about work/life support and their use of stealth in using work/life initiatives.

Half or more of employees in emerging countries thought they would experience repercussionsfor using work/life programs. Forty percent of workers in emerging countries, for example, said they received unfavorable job assignments as a result of using work/life options. Another 28 percent thought they would receive unfavorable assignments if they used work/life options.

In developed countries such as the U.K. and the U.S., fear of reprisal by men and women exceeded their experience of such repercussions, the report found.

“We’re in a period of transformation, where even in emerging economies old attitudes commingle with new attitudes in ways that are often contradictory,” said Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of the Families and Work Institute (FWI). There, she co-directs the National Study of the Changing Workforce and co-directs When Work Works, a project on workplace flexibility and effectiveness.

In 2011, the Society for Human Resource Management and the FWI entered into a multiyear partnership, Moving Work Forward, to transform the way organizations view and adopt workplace flexibility.

The conflicting attitudes toward flexible work options, she said, are part of a lingering view that such benefits are perks granted to valued employees, “but under the table so no one notices it.”

As for employee fears that they will feel the sting of repercussion, in the U.S. “it’s an equal opportunity jeopardy. Men and women feel it alike,” said Galinsky, who served as an informal advisor on the WFD Consulting/WorldatWork survey.

Stereotypes Debunked

Men still view work/life programs as geared toward women’s needs, and they use work/life options at lower rates than women, according to the report. But the findings debunk the stereotype that men largely identify themselves with their work and women with their family and relationships. Women in India and Germany, for example, identify more with their work than men do in those countries, according to the report.

“I think that they’re right to say it was predominantly developed for women,” Galinsky said of work/life options. “Employers are just beginning to realize that men need it and they want to have time with their families.”

However, she added, “I don’t think the work world has developed flexibility in a way that really asks men what they need, asks men how it should be designed, asks men how it should work” for them.

She advises employers to form a men’s advisory group to identify their work/life issues, develop ideas on how to design flexible work options around those issues and market to them. Men usually are absent from workplace brochures promoting such benefits, she noted.

Men overall said finding time to spend with family was their biggest work/life challenge; financial stress and finding time for hobbies tied as the second-biggest challenge. Financial stress is the top work/life challenge of women overall, followed by finding time for exercise. Women were more likely than men to say finding time for chores and errands was a challenge.

Flexible start and end times to their workdays, followed by the freedom to take time off on short notice to handle personal and family matters, were both genders’ favored solutions from a list of 32 options.

Female workers in emerging countries, though, report higher use of flex options such as telework, remote work, compressed workweeks and reduced hours.

“Working men and women around the world seek the same holy grail: success in both their work and family lives,” WorldatWork’s AWLP Executive Director Kathie Lingle said in a news release. “The assumption that male identity is rooted in work and not family is a major impediment to the effective integration of employees’ work and family lives.”

Peter Linkow, president of WFD Consulting and one of the report’s authors, encourages business leaders at all levels that have experienced employee use of work/life options to share their stories, “warts and all.”

“This would be a powerful step toward reducing employees’ fears that utilizing the benefits they have been given will jeopardize their careers,” he said in a news release. “This is especially important in a climate where financial stress and job security are top of mind for workers.”

Related Articles:

White House Advisor: Workplace Flexibility ‘Will Keep America Competitive,’ HR News, March 2011

Thought Leaders Call Flexible Workplaces a ‘Strategic Imperative,’ SHRM Online Benefits Discipline, February 2011

SHRM: Flexibility Needed to Recruit, Retain Older Workers, HR News, November 2010

SHRM Urges Employers to Embrace Workplace Flexibility, HR News, July 2010

Related Resources:

SHRM Workplace Flexibility Resource Page

Work-Life Focus 2012 and Beyond Conference


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