Workplace Flexibility


n the past, the issue of workplace flexibility was largely a topic discussed in the context of work-life balance as it relates to young professionals and their prospect of having children.  It was mainly focused on how working parents, particularly mothers, would manage the challenge of pursuing a career and a growing family.  

Though family planning is still a central theme in the conversation, today, flexibility with respect to work schedule and location encompasses a much wider range of considerations.  Modern families are much more attuned to fathers playing a larger role in domestic responsibilities.  An increasing number of working age adults are finding themselves not only figuring out how to take care of children, but potentially aging parents too.  Younger workers, absent the demands of parenthood, are desiring and demanding greater flexibility from employers.  And in all of these situations, changing economic forces and labor market conditions are influencing how employers and employees are managing these needs and expectations.

Though a crisis of care is still most often the trigger for finally seeking flexibility in ones work schedule, individual motivations are varied.  As Morra Aarons-Mele points out in “Hiding in the Bathroom”, a book in which she hopes to help readers achieve their own definition of professional success, “Some working parents want to work all the time; some professionals without children want a less draining schedule.” She points out that one person might feel stifled by being stuck in the office, where she is interrupted and stuck under a bank of fluorescent lights, knowing that she would be much more productive at home or in a more remote environment.  Another may head home to pick up the kids, and sign in later to finish up some work remotely, but longs to stay in the office to be in the thick of the action and away from the distractions of home.

Flexibility is not one size fits all.  Nor is the perception of those who take advantage of it when it is a possibility.  The primary goals of work flexibility, especially from the perspective of the employer, are to maximize productivity and employee retention.  Even as evidence of its benefits mounts, the ability to determine where, when and how work gets done, is often regarded, especially by other employees, as a perk rather than a strategy.   This is especially true for women, who often don’t seek out more suitable work arrangements, or even take advantage of existing policies on flexibility, for worry of losing professional credibility.  Interestingly though, men exercising control of their own schedules is often perceived as a sign of power, particularly when they do so outside of the confines of formal telecommuting programs that are available to them.

Regardless of preferences, a rapidly growing number of both men and women in their prime working years are being forced to confront this issue on account of family.  While planning for children can be controlled and timed to an extent, more and more working adults are being faced with the care of aging parents as well.  Timing of those care needs and plans for managing that transition are much more unpredictable.  While parenthood can be written off in the professional realm as a decision, care for elderly parents is a reality forced on workers and one that is placing an increasing burden on today’s employees and employers.  The ability to manage this demographic shift has the potential to impact whether many individuals stay in or leave the labor force during some of their most productive years.

On the other end of the spectrum, there is also a growing trend toward work flexibility among young adults that has nothing to do with the demands of family life.  A 2015 Ernst & Young survey found millennial employees are more likely than any other generation to change jobs, give up a promotion, move or take a pay cut in order to have greater flexibility in their work.  Correspondingly, HR giant ADP identifies three trends that are fueling this demand.  Millennial employees tend to see themselves as “free agents”, as indicated by their loyalty to employers.  PricewaterhouseCoopers found that 60% change jobs every three years or less.  They are also a generation accustomed to social and technological collaboration.  These workers have access to and are used to using tools that allow them to stay connected regardless of location.  Just as they remain socially connected through the use of technology they expect to be able to remain professionally connected, and as a result location becomes less of a constraint to work productivity.  Finally, the millennial generation has an enhanced sense of meaning and desire to do work that “matters”.  In that pursuit they seek freedom personally and professionally.  Those with desirable skills are increasingly likely to find accommodations.

The need or desire for flexibility can come from many places.  Whether or not you find the reasons for flexible work arrangements to be compelling, the reality is that workers are demanding it.  Arguably the greatest human resources challenge for any business is attracting and retaining talent.  Especially in times of economic growth and full employment, as is being experienced now, meeting the needs and demands of qualified employees is crucial.  As long as that trend continues it is likely that more employers will formalize and adopt flexible and telecommuting work policies.  It may take some adaptation on both sides, but the message from human resources firms and professionals seems to indicate that with the right strategy flexibility can generate positive results for both employee and employer.

Meet the author