During my career as a middle manager, opportunities for me to offer flexible work options to employees have increased dramatically.
My bosses are more likely now than in years past to support me when I want to let people work from home on occasion or shift their hours to handle family matters. This is a positive development, and I'm glad the trend toward offering schedules that help work-life balance is gaining strength.
What I haven't seen over the years, however, is a strong desire to formalize flexible work offerings. Sure, a couple of the places at which I have worked have had a telecommuting policy, but it usually amounted to a requirement that someone fill out a one-page document if they wanted to be able to work from home.
For the most part, when I let a team member telecommute for an afternoon or come in later than usual one day to help with a school activity, it's up to me to set the parameters and expectations on an informal basis.
I like the flexibility that offers me as a manager, especially when my employees' requests are unexpected or due to last-minute challenges at home. For that reason, I'm not really complaining about the status quo.
However, a new survey on corporate attitudes toward flexible work has me thinking that some formalization of these procedures might be a good idea.
The "Trends in Workplace Flexibility" survey was released last month by WorldatWork, a nonprofit human resources association, and FlexJobs, an online service for professionals seeking telecommuting, flexible-schedule, part-time and freelance jobs. The survey was conducted in May and June and includes responses from 375 U.S., Canadian and international WorldatWork members.
According to the results, 80 percent of respondents said their companies offered flexible work arrangements for employees. However, only 37 percent reported that their companies had formal, written philosophies or policies to support employee flexibility.
These results mesh perfectly with my personal experience. And according to experts from WorldatWork and FlexJobs, this is not all good news.
“Top employers today understand the valid reasons for creating new ways of working; however, we’re still witnessing a lack of training and resistance from management,” said Anne C. Ruddy, president and CEO of WorldatWork, in a press release about the survey. “Without a formal program in place, it’s difficult to measure flexibility’s effectiveness. Until that happens, companies will not see cost-saving benefits, productivity gains and increased employee retention, which all come from workplace flexibility."
I completely agree that all of those benefits can result from offering workers flexibility. I've witnessed the productivity gains, especially from employees who had a chance to work from home on occasion.
But again, those opportunities were provided at my discretion without much, if any, corporate guidance. This is a problem for a variety of reasons, according to the survey.
"By far, the most prevalent flexibility programs offered are telework days on an ad hoc basis, flex time and compressed work weeks," said the press release about the survey. "From 2011 to 2015, flexibility programs have varied according to the type of program offered and the organization’s demographics, industry and culture. Additionally, 41 percent of those surveyed report that access to flexible work arrangements is not widespread to all employees."
That makes sense to some extent because not all jobs lend themselves to telecommuting or flexible schedules. But if a simple lack of planning or commitment makes a company's flex-work opportunities seem random, that could have serious repercussions on workplace culture, morale and, ultimately, productivity.
"Allowing ‘ad hoc’ flexible work options without oversight or intention isn’t a smart, long-term strategy for companies,” said Sara Sutton Fell, CEO and founder of FlexJobs, in the press release. “The 80 percent of companies that offer flexible work casually are missing some key strategic possibilities. By formalizing flex-work programs and putting structure around them, they can track metrics, measure progress and quantify goals and outcomes.
"The most important part is to realize that work flexibility shouldn’t compete or erode business goals, but should support a healthier, more productive and stronger bottom line when implemented proactively and strategically.”
I like her focus on the corporate benefits to formalizing flexible work. Doing so will require some effort from executives, but the work-life balance movement isn't a temporary trend. I genuinely believe it's here to stay and is only going to grow stronger. As such, it makes sense for companies to take it seriously and plan accordingly.
The WorldatWork/FlexJobs survey also found that only 42 percent of managers accept the idea that flexibility is essential to organizational success, but 67 percent of managers offer flexibility to all or most of their employees.
That seems like a strangely conflicting result to me. If flexibility isn't important to success, why are managers offering it to their workers?
In another weird result, 48 percent of managers said they believed teleworkers were just as productive as in-office employees, even though they still found it difficult to estimate the productivity of telecommuters.
The anecdotal evidence I've gathered in my personal experience says many people are highly productive when they're working from home, but I've never gathered hard data on it. That doesn't shake my confidence, but it is interesting to contemplate.
Overall, the results of this particular survey once again support the idea that offering flexible work options can help both employees and employers. I always appreciate hearing news of that nature.
And until more companies formalize their work flexibility plans, I'll keep trying to help my team members achieve better balance in the informal way that has worked well for the last few years. I've seen enough to know it makes sense from both a business and a human point of view, and that's not going to change, with or without official procedures.