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What does true flexibility look like? Most organizations approach it in one of two ways: as an ad hoc work-life accommodation available upon request, or as giving people permission to get their work done on their own schedule — as long as they’re available to answer emails or put out fires 24/7. Neither approach is sustainable over the long term. The authors, who have been studying workplace flexibility for years, advocate a more balanced approach that makes employer and employee needs equal. In this article they outline the downsides of work-life accommodation and boundaryless working and discuss the tenets that organizations should follow as they develop their own flexibility programs and policies.
You can tailor programs and policies to fit your employees’ needs.">
As organizations tentatively plan how to get work done amid the uncertainty of the coronavirus, both leaders and employees are touting the benefits of flexibility. But what does flexibility at work look like in practice? And how can you know whether your team or organization is using it successfully?
We are researchers who study how organizations of all types — from professional services and IT firms to hospitals, retail stores, and manufacturing facilities — manage flexibility. Over the course of our work we have asked leaders to tell us how they do so (or not). Here is a range of typical responses:
I accommodate employee needs for time to go to the gym during lunch or take a class by allowing a special arrangement with respect to the work schedule.
If a family member is ill or someone has been in a car accident, it’s no issue to leave work.
Because of the way that the units are staffed and scheduled, there doesn’t seem to be a whole lot of flexibility.
I often resorted to mandatory Zoom meetings on Friday nights at 6 PM, because that was the only calendar opening for key staff members.
We can’t get enough staff on the weekends to run the production we need to run — even with eight different schedule options. That’s not a good thing. I don’t want that to be the reason we can’t produce.
These responses may sound familiar. The variation among them is notable. The first focuses on special arrangements for nonwork activities. The second is contingent on dire circumstances. The third expresses frustration about the barriers to flexibility. The fourth is flexibility at its worst. The last shows that flexible scheduling is a critical (yet unsolved) competitive issue for many organizations.
This variation reflects the fact that the word “flexibility” is vague; its implementation can differ from organization to organization, department to department, and even within teams. It’s no wonder that managers struggle with how to let employees work when and where they do so best. Even companies that were early leaders in piloting extensive flexible working — such as IBM and Bank of America — began pulling back on those arrangements several years ago, because they felt their businesses weren’t benefiting.
Yet coming out of the pandemic, a growing number of companies have announced that they plan to “embrace flexibility,” particularly in a hybrid working model. This is for three key reasons: First, businesses believe that the 24/7 remote-work form of flexibility can be leveraged to support productivity. Second, employees — especially Millennials — are threatening to quit unless they’re granted flexibility. Third, some leaders assume that when employees are permitted to work flexibly, they automatically experience more harmony in their work-life balance.
But these rationales oversimplify the challenge in making flexibility core to an organization’s strategy and operations. As a result, most companies approach the task superficially. In reality, expanding flexible work arrangements entails more than sharing online tool kits, surveying workers’ preferences, purchasing self-scheduling software, or hiring consultants to become more “phygital” (physical plus digital). Despite all the hype about flexibility’s work-life benefits, studies consistently show that companies are better at creating flexible work options than at enabling the use of them. Leaders leave that to the benefits department or payroll consultants.
Employers also have strong biases regarding the types of flexibility. Research shows that if leaders believe that employees are telecommuting to increase productivity, such as by working long hours to meet job demands, then career benefits are likely to ensue. Those benefits are far less prevalent when individuals use flexibility for family or personal reasons. Evidence indicates that when women use flexibility more than men do, they face lower pay, stalled careers, and backlash.
Our worry is that these patterns will recur as organizations plow ahead with flexibility on a much larger scale. But there is a better way. In this article we provide insights on why traditional flexible working practices have not lived up to their potential. We also offer a path forward with what we call true flexibility — a strategy that aligns the interests of employers and employees and thus benefits both groups.
Leaders have typically managed flexibility in one of two ways: as an accommodation around individual work-life events such as illness or childcare, which companies use to attract and retain employees; or as boundaryless working, which many leaders used to transition their organizations to widespread remote work during Covid-19. In the second case, employees are expected, explicitly or implicitly, to be available 24/7 to perform their jobs. Whereas accommodation largely offers flexibility for the individual, boundaryless working offers flexibility for the company. Neither is inherently bad, but both can have unintended consequences, particularly when used in isolation.
This approach is understood as a supervisor’s one-off response to an employee’s request for more flexibility in a schedule, place of work, time off, or workload to support personal or family needs. Such idiosyncratic, case-by-case approvals sometimes mirror parent-child dynamics, with the manager granting “permission” to the employee — whether it’s “exceptional flex,” as in the hypothetical car accident mentioned above, or a special reward to help retain a high performer.
Benefits can be derived from addressing unique worker needs, but that kind of flexibility may come at a cost if it creates two classes of employees: those who work “nontraditional” schedules and those who work “regular” hours. The latter rarely ask for flexibility but may well want more of it.
Further, many employers have trouble deciding — or are ambivalent about — whether and how to sustain flexible working accommodations, which are rarely implemented in ways that support cultural consistency or career advancement. In organizations where managers are the gatekeepers of flexibility (most often the case), employee access can be very uneven, with accommodation dependent on who one’s boss is rather than on the quality of one’s work or the equitable support of nonwork needs.
If work flexibility is viewed as an exceptional accommodation, it can also affect customers and clients. In one large North American study, a manager who had supported implementing flexible work commented, “Some clients are more (or less) empathetic than others….You know: ‘I’m not paying
Finally, we know that women — especially working mothers and caregivers — have historically been the primary seekers of accommodation and have faced pay and career discrimination as a result. Although a smaller number of men seek similar arrangements and may also face discrimination, they are more likely to advance in their careers. Work-life flexibility has long been gender-siloed, seen as a “women’s issue,” with women bearing the brunt of its effects on career and pay across occupations. This was especially true during the pandemic. For example, the publishing output and productivity of talented STEM professional women decreased dramatically while women handled most of the childcare, eldercare, and schooling.
We find that as a company becomes more comfortable with allowing and managing flexibility, leaders tend to move to a boundaryless approach, whereby employees work anywhere, anytime. Typically companies initiate this to enhance productivity and enable their businesses to operate efficiently around the clock while saving money. In the 1990s many companies, including IBM, Deloitte, and PwC, experimented with this approach, dispersing a mobile workforce globally across home office and customer locations. Leaders learned how to manage performance by relying more on outcome metrics than on face time.
This results-oriented, employer-driven flexibility does indeed yield bottom-line benefits. Studies show that teleworking professionals who are conscientious and highly identified with their jobs are motivated to work long hours, especially in the absence of commutes and watercooler chitchat. And the costs saved from reducing office space are a plus for employers. Yet boundaryless work can hurt employers in the long run, even if they don’t realize it. Companies’ talent pools may suffer. For example, recent news reports indicate that despite highly lucrative pay, investment banking jobs are now less popular with young professionals because of the long hours, lack of work-life balance, and work-anytime culture.
And although telework provides some benefits to employees, such as a shorter (or no) commute and the ability to integrate home tasks, the evidence suggests a lot of downsides when it is boundaryless 24/7. Boundaryless flexibility increasingly “passes the buck” by shifting the burden of matching customers’ schedule demands onto workers, depleting personal time, and — for teleworkers — transferring workspace and tech support costs as well. Employees are at greater risk for layoffs, lower ratings, and lower pay because they are less socially connected to colleagues. The work-without-boundaries approach may also increase isolation, symptoms of depression, overwork, and job creep into nonwork space and time.
What happens at home matters to the success of boundaryless working. Early studies that reported better work-life balance under its conditions typically held domestic and work hours constant, which may have hidden the gender effects. As recent reviews suggest, an employee (often a woman) who is teleworking is more likely to take on even more family demands and report greater work-life conflict.
This increase in work-nonwork multitasking while teleworking has become visible during the Covid-19 crisis, culminating in a global “shecession.” Even for dual-career couples, traditional gender roles persisted at home, aggravated by pandemic disruptions. A national study of woman scientists found that although their mostly male partners also worked remotely during the pandemic, the women ended up doing 90% of the domestic labor. Fathers were unable or unwilling to help, so working women managed virtual schooling, childcare, pets, cooking, and cleaning, and experienced higher work-family conflict and overload. This exacerbated the gender gap, which, the World Economic Forum notes, has increased by more than an entire generation’s worth: It will now take 135.6 years for women to reach parity with men, rather than 99.5. Gendered inequality will continue in the post-pandemic workplace unless organizations change their approach.
So, is hybrid the magic flexibility pill?
As companies move to implement a post-pandemic hybrid flexibility — a largely employer-determined mix of remote and office work schedules, incorporating a blend of unique accommodations and widespread boundaryless work with little or no structure — employees’ well-being and careers could actually suffer harm. We believe that women and those with health or family-care needs would be the most disadvantaged. That’s because the majority of these arrangements won’t effectively empower employees to align job and nonwork demands by controlling when and where they work. Our fear is that companies may end up offering inflexible flexibility, whereby employees have little choice about schedules and which days they may work remotely. At the other extreme, flexibility will be implemented without structures or norms, resulting in a “program” that is disorganized, scattershot, and reactive to work requirements. Expectations about where and when one should work may shift without warning, as work seeps into off-hours and employees struggle to live predictable nonwork lives.
True flexibility will require truly new thinking.
A Better Way
True flexibility aligns employers and employees to achieve mutual gain in meeting both performance and work-life needs: It is a means to compete in the market over the long term, and it gives employees a say and some choice in how flexibility is implemented on their teams and in their organizations.
This is both a top-down and a bottom-up process. Leaders listen, set goals, and provide resources to make flexibility possible. Employees choose flexible working that suits their needs while communicating with their managers and colleagues to ensure that team, client, and customer requirements are met. In other words, the company provides the scaffolding — flexibility options, equipment, and supportive performance-management systems — and individual employees and teams decide how to organize their work within it.
With this approach, employers benefit by retaining a globally diverse, sustainable workforce. Employees experience well-being, enjoy respectful team processes, and avoid burnout and health problems. But it requires moving away from old narratives and enhancing employee support and trust. To do that, leaders must first assess their current culture. How do they define flexibility? Has the company leaned more toward accommodation, boundarylessness, or a combination? What policies has it embraced, and for which jobs? Then they can assess which true flexibility principles should be further embraced. We detail those principles here.
Make flexibility available to all employees.
Every job deserves some flexibility. Even if telework isn’t always an option, organizations should offer flexibility to both office and frontline workers. It cannot be viewed as a scarce or privileged resource. Yet all too often that’s what happens. Companies ignore the needs of essential and hourly workers, providing flexibility only to knowledge workers on technology-driven teams.
Consider a pharmaceutical company that was part of one of our studies. During a snowstorm, senior directors and managers could work from home, but secretaries were forced to drive on a busy (and icy) freeway to get to the office. Many leaders didn’t realize that they had such an unfair policy, because they were accustomed to administrative support in a hierarchical culture. The company gradually expanded its flexibility by experimenting with summer hours: A secretary could partner with a peer to cover each other’s Friday workload, enabling them to take every other Friday off.
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Flexibility for all workers is indeed possible. As managers learned during the pandemic, a company can schedule hourly work flexibly and in shorter shifts and give paid time off at the last minute without penalty; in fact, those accommodations were necessary to support essential workers during the crisis. We know of an engine manufacturer that, even before Covid-19, regularly scheduled highly cross-trained “floaters” who could rotate jobs and shifts on teams and fill in wherever colleagues need help. That allowed its teams to function well during the pandemic, when workers had to care for children during school closures or take care of other personal needs. McDonald’s recently added paid time off and an emergency childcare program to attract mostly hourly workers. Another example comes from a busy metropolitan police department: Officers, including supervisors, were able to use predetermined compressed workweeks to create more-predictable schedules and allow for recovery time.