Balancing act: Survey shows work-life flexibility trend is 'almost perfectly ambivalent'
Almost all full-time workers have some schedule flexibility these days, but that doesn't mean their employers are fully committed to helping them build more balanced lives.
So say the results of a new survey from Flex+Strategy Group/Work+Life Fit Inc.
The best news here — at least for those of us who are work-life balance advocates — is that 97 percent of those surveyed said they had some form of work-life flexibility in 2013.
Less positive, however, is that only 46 percent described their employers' commitment to flexibility as strong. Meanwhile, 20 percent said it was clear their company had reduced flexibility during the past year; 5 percent had "heard rumors or noticed signs" of a decreased commitment; and 20 percent said their employers are committed for now, but that could change.
The national telephone survey of 556 full-time employed adults has a margin of error of 4 percent, and it is part of a biennial study first conducted in 2006.
Flex+Strategy Group CEO Cali Williams Yost, a flexible workplace strategist and author, let me know about this new survey. I asked her a few questions in an email interview to see what the results might mean for the state of work-life balance in corporate America today.
First, Yost says, the survey shows that the flexibility trend today is neither positive nor negative, "but almost perfectly ambivalent." When 46 percent of respondents say their employer has a strong commitment to flexibility while 45 percent either aren't sure of the commitment or see a decrease in support, it indicates that we still have work to do in this area.
"The stories of a complete retreat from work-life flexibility, like Yahoo and Best (Buy), have dominated the discussion, and, yes, 20 percent of respondents did report that it was evident their employer reduced flexibility," Yost wrote as part of the email interview. "However, in the trenches, employees report more uncertainty rather than actual pullback.
"This is important, because ambivalence is easier to address once you identify the source of the uncertainty. The conversation had to shift from a 'let me tell you one more time why flexibility is important' to 'you get that it's important, but how do you do it well so you can confidently embrace it.’ ”
The fact that almost everyone surveyed reported having some flexibility over the past year is positive, she said, adding that "flexibility" could mean anything from "I can leave work five minutes early to go to my son's soccer game" to "I do all of my work from a remote location."
"And 23 percent said the amount of flexibility they have increased from the prior year. So flexibility is here," Yost wrote. "It's happening, and it's growing for a national probability sample of U.S. workers.
"However, 45 percent of respondents reported they thought their employer's commitment to flexibility was possibly waning, but only 20 percent saw evidence of a decrease. This is a classic case of employer ambivalence rather than outright rejection. Employers are stuck. They know the business and their people can benefit from work-life flexibility, but they aren't confident that they know how to do it well enough to truly embrace it."
This makes sense to me. The potential benefits of offering flexibility — in employee morale and productivity, among other things — are significant, but it's not easy to structure a work-life program. If a company's leaders don't know how to manage employees who have flexible schedules, those executives probably won't feel comfortable building or expanding such a program.
When companies like Yahoo decide to cut back on their flexible work or telecommuting options, it can exacerbate the problem.
"I think the Yahoo and Best Buy stories shined a spotlight on the 20 percent of employers who employees said did actually decrease the amount of flexibility they offer, and they gave other organizations that aren't as confident in the way flexibility is being used permission to pause and say, 'Wait, is this the best we can do?’ ” Yost wrote.
"My hope is that we stop focusing on the minority that chose to throw the baby out with the bath water and instead start talking about what it takes to make flexibility really work."
Those "minority" voices did receive a disproportionate amount of attention this past year. However, this might end up being a net positive in the long run.
Even when a small minority of companies are eliminating flexibility for employees, they are getting people talking and thinking about the importance of work-life balance. Based on most of the reactions to the incidents of the past year, I think it is safe to say that the idea of offering flexibility is no longer considered strange. Instead, these companies' plans to cut flexibility were seen as odd, and that's a good sign.
I'll share more of the survey results and my email interview with Yost in next week's column. In the meantime, if you have any ideas about what I've shared so far, please leave a comment online or send me an email. I'd like to hear your thoughts on these issues.
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