Flexible Work Options Sound Great, But Why Aren’t Employees Taking Advantage?

Recently the Wall Street Journal covered something that’s turning out to be an interesting conundrum for businesses.

They’re offering flexible work programs and attempting to help employees carve out a stronger work-life balance, but employees aren’t necessarily taking advantage of the options.

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The Denver Post also recently highlighted flexibility benefits and offerings. Lauren Sveen, president of Mom Corps Denver, said there’s a disconnect in what employees say they desire and what they’re receiving.

Her company conducted the 2015 Mom Corps Labor Day Flexibility Survey, and it showed that 67 percent of adults responding to the survey said they had “at least a little” flexibility in their job. The number of people who said their employer would work with them if they requested a flexible work schedule actually dropped from 68 percent to 64 percent between 2013 and 2015.

The survey went on to show that a big majority—75 percent—of surveyed working adults said flexibility was one of the most important factors they looked at when deciding on a new job or a company to work for.

That represents a 10 percent increase from 2013. Millennials are leading the charge when it comes to a push for flexibility. 79 percent of survey respondents aged 18 to 34 said flexibility was the number one most important factor considered when deciding on a job. 68 percent said they’d accomplish more if permitted to work from home occasionally.

Despite this expansive demand for workplace flexibility, when it’s offered it would seem employees are actually shying away from it.

Perception vs. Reality

The Wall Street Journal cites a study conducted by LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Co. The Women in the Workplace study cites that while many companies have flexibility and development programs available, participation is incredibly low.

This is interesting because employees view these options favorably, yet only about 12 percent of workers utilize these options, which include part-time and compressed work weeks, as well as job sharing.

Kimberly Elsbach, who serves as a professor of organizational behavior at the University of California, says she feels the reason people don’t make the most use of flexible workplace benefits is because they fear it will create the perception they’re less committed.

“They fear the perception that they’re a burden to their colleagues, whether they are actually a burden or not,” she says.

In the Lean In and McKinsey study, over 90 percent of respondents said they were apprehensive about not working for six months or more because of a personal or family-related issue, saying they felt like it would have a negative impact on their job.

Can Culture Be the Cure?

There are real,  measurable benefits to offering workplace flexibility, which is why businesses are often willing to provide these options. Unfortunately, if employees aren’t taking advantage, then no one is benefitting.

So what can businesses do to not only offer flexibility but also encourage the usage of such programs?

The Wall Street Journal piece highlights the importance of culture in conjunction with flexible work offerings.

The article says that many companies offer these availabilities as a sort of in passing memo, rather than showing they truly embrace the options of flexibility for employees. Unfortunately, creating a culture shift is also incredibly challenging.

For a flexible environment to work, not only does it have to exist but it also has to be a pivotal part of office culture.

Creating a Culture Conducive to Flexibility

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One of the first things to realize about the attempt to create any type of workplace cultural shift is that it doesn’t happen immediately. It’s a big undertaking that requires not only the creation and implementation of the flexible procedures but also creating a culture that supports these changes.

Along with being patient and expecting it to be a process, the group 1 Million for Workplace Flexibility, recommends that businesses take the “What’s In It For Me Approach.”

This means everyone within the organization should have a clear idea of what they’re gaining from a more flexible workplace. This includes not just employees, but also executives and company leaders. There needs to be a clear business case outlined for why this type of work environment is beneficial for not just employees, but the entire organization. According to 1 Million For Workplace Flexibility, the more you can show all key stakeholders what really is in it for them, the simpler it will be to get them excited and engaged in the new workplace culture.

To achieve this you have to uncover a clear idea of what success is going to look like for your company. Your measure of success may be a reduction in the costs related to turnover, or it may be an improvement in client satisfaction. Whatever it is, before you can really show everyone “what’s in it for them,” there needs to be baselines to measure success or failure.

The Wall Street Journal uses the example of Moody’s, which is a company dedicated to not only flexibility in the workplace, but also a culture that promotes it. One of the ways Moody’s makes this happen is by holding town hall and virtual sessions in which they highlight the achievements of employees utilizing flexible work options.

Moody’s also shares general statistics related to flexibility including this: 20 percent of female U.S. employees at Moody’s with formalized flexible arrangements have been promoted since 2013.

The Journal’s piece also highlights another stumbling block to flexibility work environments. Mid-level managers are often the ones interacting the most with employees, yet they tend to be the least likely to be onboard with flexibility.

While upper-level management and company leaders may spend their time sharing the benefits of flexible options, if middle managers aren’t on board it’s not going to work. It’s crucial to get these people on board. Otherwise, any attempts at flexibility are likely to flounder.

Finally, it’s valuable to consider flexibility programs as constantly evolving. Some things are going to work well for your organization while others may not. There always needs to be opportunities to receive and consider feedback from everyone.

Does your company already have at least some flexible work options in place? If so, do your employees take advantage or do they shy away out of fear of looking less committed to their careers?


October 12, 2015   Updated :September 19, 2016      

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