Flexiblity--Central to an Effective Workplace

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Ellen Galinsky, President and Co-Founder, Families and Work Institute

Ellen GalinskyEllen Galinsky, president and co-founder of Families and Work Institute (FWI), helped establish the field of work and family life during the time she was at Bank Street College of Education, where she was on the faculty for 25 years. Her more than 100 books and reports include the best-selling Mind in the Making: The Seven Essential Life Skills Every Child Needs, Ask The Children and the now classic The Six Stages of Parenthood. She has published more than 300 articles in journals, books and magazines. At the Institute, Ms. Galinsky co-directs the National Study of the Changing Workforce, the most comprehensive nationally representative study of the U.S. workforce—updated every five to six years. 

She also co-directs When Work Works (a project on workplace flexibility and effectiveness first funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation that has produced a series of research papers and has launched the When Work Works Award—formerly Sloan Award) as well as conducted the National Study of Employers, a nationally representative study that has tracked trends in employment benefits, policies and practices since 1998. In 2011, the Society for Human Resource Management and Families and Work Institute formed a ground-breaking, multi-year partnership that takes When Work Works out to employers in 50 states.

Employees Today Want to and Increasingly Expect to Work Flexibly

Not that long ago, the idea of workplace flexibility was outside the realm of mainstream business. Yes, it existed, but where it did, it was likely to be seen as a perk or a favor, quietly provided, often under the table, to a chosen few.1 Its rise as a business issue is a direct response to an economy that's increasingly demanding, fast-paced and hectic—24/7 rather than 9 to 5. In response, employees are experiencing a pervasive time famine.

The majority of employees in the United States report that they don't have enough time for themselves (60%), for their husbands, wives or partners (63%), or for their children (75%). What's more, the feeling of a time famine has continued to escalate over the years, according to our ongoing nationally representative study of the U.S. workforce, the National Study of the Changing Workforce (NSCW), most recently conducted in 2008, with the 2015 study being conducted now.

In comparing various employee groups (by gender, by generation, by educational background, by industry, by part-time and full-time status, by union or nonunion membership, by managerial or nonmanagerial position, and by salary level), we have found—perhaps surprisingly—there are no differences among these groups, not even between mothers and fathers. If an employee has children, he or she is equally likely to feel deprived of time.2 

On the other hand, there are differences among employee groups in experiencing a lack of time with one's husband, wife or partner. Parents, full-time employees, more highly educated employees, managers/ professionals, higher paid and younger employees are the most likely to feel deprived of couple time. The gap between parents (73%) and nonparents (52%) is particularly large. Clearly, parents seem to be giving up couple time and to feel the repercussions.3

Similarly, there is a large difference between parents (72%) and nonparents (50%) in feeling they don't have enough time for themselves. Women, full-time employees, managers/professionals, unionized employees, salaried employees, employees living with a spouse or partner, employees making between $25,000 and $39,999 annually, and more highly educated employees are the most likely to feel deprived of time for themselves.4

If experiencing a time famine is a serious problem for employees, then workplace flexibility is the logical solution. And, in fact, the 2008 NSCW finds that a large majority of employees—88%—report that having the flexibility they need to manage work and personal or family life would be "extremely" or "very" important if they were looking for a new job.5 Younger employees (Gen Y and Gen X) are the most likely to say that flexibility would be extremely or very important to them than older employees (Boomer and Matures); in one study, 45% of 19-29-year-old employees in 14 counties (all college graduates) reported that they would take a lower salary to be able to work remotely.6

Access to Flexibility Doesn't Match the Demand

Although the demand is high, not all employees have access to flexibility. In fact, one out of five employees disagreed somewhat or strongly that he or she has the schedule flexibility needed to manage the demands of work and personal life. Furthermore, having access to flexibility doesn't mean that one can use it without jeopardy. Over the years, two out of five employees surveyed in the NSCW report that their job may be in jeopardy if they use the flexibility their organizations provide.

Another ongoing nationally representative study of the Families and Work Institute, the National Study of Employers (NSE), conducted in partnership with SHRM, enables us to track the trends in workplace flexibility. The 2014 NSE reveals that flexibility around full-time work has increased, but flexibility around significant time away from work has declined.7 

Just as employees report that there can be job jeopardy for using the flexibility their organizations provide, we also find that manager support for flexibility has declined. For example, managers are less likely to assess employees on results than on face time (64% in 2014, down from 71% in 2008), and management is less likely to reward those in the organization who support effective flexible work arrangement (11% in 2014, down from 20% in 2008).

Flexibility Needs to be Defined Beyond Access to Programs and Policies

It is clear from the Families and Work Institute's findings that flexibility has to be seen as more than a program and policy. It has to include manager and co-worker support for its use. In our work, we have adopted a much broader definition that we term "work-life fit" or "workflex" (which was the title of our 2012 book on the topic) to encompass both flexible programs and policies as well as a culture that supports their use.8

Flexibility Can't Be Seen as a Silver Bullet—an Effective Workplace Matters

Obviously, organizations aren't going to provide flexibility only because employees need and want it. For it to become a legitimate part of the business realm, it has to help the organization, not just the employees. And whatever variables we use—access to workflex or the absence of work-life conflict—employees are more likely to be engaged and satisfied with their jobs, want to remain with their employer and experience better health.9

On the other hand, when we examine how flexibility is linked to the outcomes that are important to employers, flexibility is a much stronger predictor in combination with other factors.

To determine which other factors matter, we have used our nationally representative studies of the U.S. workforce since 1997, with over 600 data points, to identify the workplace factors that are most strongly predictive outcomes that matter to employers.10

We have found the most important factors are work-life fit, opportunities for learning, autonomy, supervisor support for work success, a culture of trust, and satisfaction with earnings, benefits and opportunities for advancement. Together these constitute an effective workplace, and we have found that employees in more effective workplaces are more engaged, more satisfied with their jobs, and less likely to plan on leaving.

We have further rank-ordered these factors to see how each is related to engagement, job satisfaction and a greater probability of retention, and found that job challenge and learning are the most important predictors of engagement relative to other effective workplace dimensions, but it is a relatively less important predictor of job satisfaction and turnover intention. On the other hand, work-life fit, including flexibility, is—perhaps surprisingly— the second most important predictor of job satisfaction and intent to stay in one's job.11

Similarly, employees in effective workplaces are also more likely to feel healthy and report better well-being—clearly a result that is important to employers and employees alike. When we rank-ordered these factors, we found that satisfaction with earnings, benefits and opportunities for advancement is the major predictor of all of the health outcomes, but work-life fit is the second most important predictor of better overall health, less frequent sleep problems and lower overall stress, and the third most important predictor of less frequent health problems and fewer signs of depression.12 In other words, flexibility, defined as workplace flexibility programs and policies as well as a supportive culture, is central to an effective workplace.

Translating Research into Action: When Work Works

Because the purpose of Families and Work Institute is to turn research into action, we have created an initiative called When Work Works, first funded by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation and since 2011 conducted in partnership with SHRM. It is named When Work Works because we find that work can and should work for both the employer and the employee. With When Work Works, we invite employers to apply for and win a When Work Works Award. 

The application itself is a learning tool. As employers fill out the survey, they learn more about an effective workplace. Benchmarking reports for all applicants compare their data with award winners as well as with nationally representative data from the National Study of Employers and the National Study of the Changing Workforce. These benchmarking reports are also a helpful tool to use to plan improvements. 

Our online Guide to Bold New Ideas for Making Work Work is a compendium of the best practices from the winning organizations that others can use as inspiration for improvements in their practices, programs and policies, and translate the demand for workplace flexibility and effective workplaces into practice! 

Endnotes

1.     Galinsky, E., & Johnson, A.A. (1998). Reframing the business case for work-life initiatives. New York, NY: Families and Work Institute.

2.     Galinsky, E., Sakai, K., & Wigton, T. (2011). Workplace flexibility: From research to action. In The future of children, 21/(2), 141-161. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University and Washington, DC: The Brookings Institution.

3.     Ibid.

4.     Ibid.

5.     Galinsky, E. (2015). Research to action: Review of research conducted by the Families and Work Institute. In T. D. Allen and L.T. Eby (Eds.), The Oxford handbook of work and family. New York, NY: Oxford University Press.

6.     Cisco Systems, Inc. (2014). Cisco connected world technology report. San Jose, CA: Cisco Systems, Inc.

7.     Matos, K. and Galinsky E. (2014). 2014 national study of employers. New York, NY: Families and Work Institute.

8.     Galinsky, E., & Sheppard, S.D. (2012). Workflex: The essential guide to effective and flexible workplaces. Alexandria, VA: Society for Human Resource Management and New York, NY: Families and Work Institute.

9.     Aumann, K., & Galinsky, E. (2009, Revised September 2011). The state of health in the American workforce: Does having an effective workplace matter? New York, NY: Families and Work Institute.

10.  Bond, J.T., Galinsky, E., & Swanberg, J. (1998). The 1997 national study of the changing workforce. New York, NY: Families and Work Institute.

Bond, J.T., Galinsky, E., Kim, S.S., & Brownfield, E. (2005). 2005 national study of employers. New York, NY: Families and Work Institute.

Galinsky, E., Bond, J.T., & Sakai, K. with Kim, S.S., & Giuntoli, N. (2008). 2008 national study of employers. New York, NY: Families and Work Institute.

Matos, K., & Galinsky E. (2012). 2012 national study of employers. New York, NY: Families and Work Institute.

Matos, K., & Galinsky E. (2014). 2014 national study of employers. New York, NY: Families and Work Institute.

11.  Aumann, K., & Galinsky, E. (2009, Revised September 2011). The state of health in the American workforce: Does having an effective workplace matter? New York, NY: Families and Work Institute.

12.  Ibid. 

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