How Does Workplace Flexibility Work?
Thanks to the many demands on the average employee’s time (work, family, etc.), workplace flexibility has become one of the most highly sought-after benefits (especially by younger workers). But what exactly does the phrase “workplace flexibility” mean, what does it look like in practice, and how can employers go about making their workplaces more flexible?
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.
So, what 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:
- Allowing employees to work a compressed workweek.
Compressed workweeks are essentially pre-defined alternatives to the typical five 8-hour day schedules (such as the four 10-hour day example outlined earlier).
- Allowing employees to adjust their start or end times.
Some people work better early in the morning. Others prefer to work later in the day. One way to embrace flexibility is to give employees the freedom to tailor their workdays to the times that are most conducive to their lifestyles or habits. Even companies that operate on shift schedules can employ this strategy by allowing employees to choose which shift they want to work, or to alternate shifts as needed throughout the year.
- Allowing employers to take longer or shorter breaks, or to break up their work days into smaller chunks.This last time strategy can also be the most challenging to implement, as there are a number of state and local laws that regulate meal and rest periods. Employers considering going this route should make sure to seek the advice of employment counsel or their HR team before rolling out any new policies.
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.
- Job sharing occurs when two (or more) part-time workers share the duties of a single full-time position.
- Job carving occurs when an employer modifies an existing job description by “carving out” certain duties or tasks so that it better matches the skills and abilities of the employee currently in that job, and reassigning the carved-out tasks to other employees.
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.
Workplace flexibility by the numbers
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:
- 75% of employees ranked workplace flexibility as their most-desired benefit.
- 53% of companies surveyed said they plan to spend more money on workplace flexibility programs in the coming years.
- 87% of organizations with workplace flexibility programs saw improved employee satisfaction.
Barriers to workplace flexibility
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:
Employer concerns about workplace flexibility
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%).
Employee concerns about workplace flexibility
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%).
Implementing flexible work arrangements
WorkplaceFlexiblity.org advises employers looking to create a more flexible workplace start by asking themselves these questions:
What is the problem you’re solving for?
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.
What do your employees want?
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.
What can your management team support?
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.