The phrase workplace flexibility gets thrown around a lot when people are talking about company culture, but not everyone is clear on what the phrase really means. Some people equate workplace flexibility with the practice of allowing employees to work a flex schedule (four 10-hour days vs. five 8-hour days, or some other combination). And while an employer seeking to create a more flexible workplace might certainly choose to implement a flex schedule, scheduling is just one component of the much larger concept that is workplace flexibility.
For a definition, we went to straight to the top employment authority in the country: The U.S. Department of Labor (DOL). Here’s how the DOL defines workplace flexibility:
Essentially, flexibility enables both individual and business needs to be met through making changes to the time (when), location (where), and manner (how) in which an employee works. Flexibility should be mutually beneficial to both the employer and employee and result in superior outcomes.
Source: U.S. Department of Labor’s Workplace Flexibility Toolkit
This definition outlines three elements that are key when talking about flexible work arrangements: when, where and how, which for the purposes of this article will be referred to as time, place and task.
Time is perhaps the easiest element for employers to get their heads around when it comes to workplace flexibility. Companies with flexible time arrangements can go about implementing them in a number of ways:
With technology getting better every day, people are no longer limited by geography when it comes to work. Today, “the office” can be anywhere: a plane, your home, a coffee shop, a park – basically anywhere there’s internet access. The practice of telecommuting isn’t really a new idea at this point: NASA had a telework project back in the 1970s, and an estimated 25 percent of the American workforce now reports teleworking frequently, according to GlobalWorkplaceAnalytics.com.
While telecommuting/telework has never been more popular (more than 80 percent of the U.S. labor force says they’d like to have the option to work away from the office at least part of the time), employers and HR professionals are starting to move away from the terms themselves, instead opting to call these policies “distributed work,” “mobile work,” remote work,” or “workshifting.”
Whatever it’s called, the practice of allowing employees to regularly perform work away from a physical office can open a lot of possibilities for employers: they can recruit from a wider talent pool, they can save on operational expenses like real estate and utilities, and they can more readily engage in international business.
Employers looking to create a more flexible workplace might also consider analyzing each position to see if there’s room to change how employees do those jobs, or changing what tasks are included in a specific job description, using job sharing or job carving.
Both job sharing and job carving are accommodations promoted by the DOL’s Office of Disability Employment Policy (ODEP) employers can use to embrace customized employment and increase workplace success for people with disabilities.
A 2015 WorkplaceTrends.com survey on work-life balance found that flexible workplace arrangements are gaining steam across the country, both with employees and employers:
Flexible work arrangements may be growing in popularity, but many employers and employees remain skeptical about the realities. The Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College has analyzed several studies on flexible workplace policies and found:
For employers, the largest area of concern when it comes to implementing workplace flexibility programs is abuse by employees (42.3%), followed by reactions of clients/customers (41.2%), difficulties managing employees in flex arrangements (40.9%), and loss of productivity (40.6%).
For employees, the greatest concern was a fear that there might be “negative career consequences associated with the use of flexible work options,” (40.6%).
WorkplaceFlexiblity.org advises employers looking to create a more flexible workplace start by asking themselves these questions:
Telecommuting might be a great fit if you’re looking to cut down on operational expenses like office space and utilities, but allowing employees to set their own schedules within your office might not be.
Workplace flexibility policies can only work if employees take advantage of them. Consider conducting employee surveys or focus groups to get buy in from your workplace before making any policy decisions.
Your employees might be clamoring to set their own schedules, but if doing so will negatively impact production or prevent your managers from forecasting or setting deadlines, that’s probably not the right solution for your business. Make sure to make your management team(s) part of the conversation as well.
Tell us about your experience with workplace flexibility in the comment section below.