by Tammy Binford
Certainly, the workplace has seen dramatic change in recent years. Changes brought on by economic turmoil, technological advances, and new thinking about traditional employer-employee roles have made the workplace a much different place than it was just a decade ago. Leading the way in this new world of work is the concept of workplace flexibility. While some professions are more conducive to flexible work arrangements than others, more and more workers are finding fewer and fewer reasons to work set hours in a set place. The ability to work in various atypical ways keeps “workplace flexibility” a common buzzword for human resources professionals.
Flexibility seen surviving recession
As the recent recession took its toll, employers found themselves cutting back on benefits. And employees–just grateful to have a job–were less inclined to demand perks. But the popularity of flexible work arrangements, with their advantages to both employers and employees, seems to be here to stay in spite of the economic downturn.
A study by Flex+Strategy Group/Work+Life Fit, Inc. released in 2011 (the latest of the biennial studies) found that 76 percent of the employers contacted for the survey reported that their use of work-life flexibility stayed the same, and 11 percent said their use of flexibility actually increased during the recession. Without work-life flexibility measures, 66 percent of the employers surveyed said they believed their businesses would suffer, with employee health, morale, and productivity as the most affected areas.
“Whatever flexibility there was before the downturn survived, indicating it is here to stay in good times and bad,” Cali Williams Yost, CEO of Work+Life Fit, Inc., said when the Work-Life Fit Reality Check survey results were released in June 2011.
Those figures don’t mean that workers are finding no impediments in their quest for a flexible workplace. In a previous version of the survey, employees reported that they worried about the impact work-life flexibility would have on their paychecks or careers. Some of those concerns have eased.
“But just when employees start to worry less about using flexibility, now they think they’re too busy to do so,” Yost said. “Clearly, both organizations and employees struggle with how to make flexibility work as a meaningful and deliberate part of the way we manage our business, work, and lives.”
Flexibility as part of the HR agenda
Workplace flexibility is taking its place on the agendas of human resources and government policy makers. Lisa Horn, senior government relations adviser for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM), sat for an interview with the editors of Federal Employment Law Insider for an article in the April 2012 issue. She explained her work as co-leader of SHRM’s Workplace Flexibility Initiative.
Horn defined workplace flexibility as “a way to define how, when, and where work is done.” She said it includes telecommuting, flexible work arrangements, job sharing, and compressed or reduced schedules, as well as other arrangements.
“Workplace flexibility helps employees address their work and life needs,” Horn told Insider. “At the same time, employers need predictability and stability. It is in everyone’s interest – employers and employees alike – to provide flexibility to employees while ensuring that employers are able to schedule work in a predictable manner.”
Horn explained that SHRM believes that the United States must have a 21st century workplace flexibility policy. “Rather than a one-size-fits-all government mandate, the policy should be a new approach that reflects different work environments, representation, industries, and organizational size,” she told Insider. “It should enable employees to meet their work and personal needs while providing predictability and stability to employers. Most importantly, any policy must encourage – not discourage – the creation of quality new jobs.”
Flexibility tips for employers
The federal government has taken steps to promote flexible workplaces and even launched a virtual Workplace Flexibility Toolkit in October 2012. In announcing the toolkit, the U.S. Department of Labor (DOL) said that it makes more than 170 resources accessible, particularly for workers and job seekers with “complex employment situations, such as parents of young children, single parents, family caregivers, mature workers, at-risk youth, ex-offenders, and individuals with disabilities, including veterans with disabilities and people with HIV/AIDS.”
The DOL’s toolkit includes a list of tips for employers gleaned from organizations recognized for their flexibility and effectiveness programs by the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation. Ideas on the tip sheet include:
“See flexibility as a strategic business tool.” The tip sheet says research by the Families and Work Institute provides evidence that flexibility is as “important a component of an effective workplace as the other more traditionally understood components, such as learning opportunities, input into management decision making, job autonomy, and supervisor and coworker support for job success.”
“Be clear on the business gains you plan to achieve.” The tip sheet tells of the experience of accounting giant Ernst & Young, which has made flexibility among several factors that have helped the company retain women.
“Build flexibility into the assembly line.” The tip sheet tells of the experience of technology leader Intel, a company whose success “hinges on big factories running 24 hours a day, with highly sophisticated and expensive equipment operating at full capacity.” In spite of the rigidity of an assembly line, Intel has embraced flexibility by allowing shop floor employees the ability to work four 10-hour days with three days off.