Has the Tide Turned Against Flexible Work?

July 18, 20145:49 am733 views

The case for flexible work is a strong one. Flexible work seems to be the ideal work arrangement for a global, 24/7 business world, and a valuable resource for working families. There is even research showing that flexible working arrangements could improve overall productivity and create more harmony between work and family commitments.

The amazing thing about workplace flexibility is how, well, flexible the idea it. The concept has moved beyond the traditional working from home model, embracing a wide variety of options. In the ideal situation, flexible work offer supervisors and employees opportunities to move work (either in time or place) or reduce work to match demands of life on and off the job. A great example would be the compressed work week or a variable schedule. A strong business case for flexibility exists, and studies have documented benefits such as decreased absenteeism, lower turnover, and enhanced employee satisfaction.

Which is what makes the current employer pull back on flexible working especially puzzling. Last year, Marissa Mayer, CEO Of Yahoo! made global headlines by ending Yahoo’s! flexible work-from-home-policy. Shortly after Marissa made her announcement, Big Box retailer Best Buy’s CEO Hubert Joly put an end to the company’s “Results Only Work Environment” flexible work program, concluding that the policy was “fundamentally flawed from a leadership standpoint”.

More damningly, the 2014 National Study of Employers conducted by the Families and Work Institute and Society for Human Resource Management in the US also showcased that employers were getting increasingly leery of flexible work arrangements. While almost all the surveyed employees said they had some form of work/life flexibility, nearly half (45%) perceived that their employer’s commitment to that flexibility could be waning, and 20% said they were already seeing evidence that their company had reduced its support for flexible work. The study also found that some types of flexible work options were increasingly being taken off the table. Compared to 2008, fewer employers offered job sharing (down from 29% to 18% in 2014), the ability to work only part of the year (which dropped from 27% to 18%) and sabbaticals (from 38% in 2008 to 28% in 2014). The study also found that while most full-time workers said they had some form of work/life flexibility, 57% said they did not receive training or guidance on how to manage it well. Given this lack of know-how, it wasn’t surprising that 62% of employees with work/life flexibility said they weren’t comfortable using the flexible work option.

Meanwhile in Asia, the uptake for flexible work arrangements among employers remains slow. According to a recent study by Randstand, Hong Kong employers were weary of implementing flexible work options due to management’s concern about productivity, team culture and communication, and lack of support from business managers. Anecdotal evidence suggests that similar attitudes prevail elsewhere in Asia, especially among tradition bound organizations that see no need to change status quo.

Without a doubt, today’s workplaces offer more flexible work options than they did twenty years ago, and many employers have embraced flexibile work arrangements because they believe that it will bring positive returns. However the trajectory of flexible work’s progress has plateaued. With a lack of data and research linking the positive outcomes of flexible work with business-relevant metrics, such as sales performance, cost savings, and productivity- organizations themselves are finding it difficult to justify flexible work arrangements in terms of return on investment for their organization in ways that truly matter to their senipr management and shareholders.  Employees themselves are also getting increasingly disillusioned by flexible work arrangements- with many citing increased workloads, a lack of time, burnout, concerns that they might make less money, concerns they may lose benefits, and even fears of hurting their career or being thought of as unproductive.

The reality is that while the wave of enthusiasm for flexibility may be subsiding, the tide of changing employee needs and expectations is not retreating. This alone makes flexible work something companies will not be able to ignore in the coming years, if they seek to retain top talent. Perhaps, the solution would be to go back to the drawing board to tweaking flexible work arrangements to fit their individual business needs.

What is your view on flexible work? Has it worked in your organization or did it have mixed results? Drop me a note at divya@hrinasia.com to share your views.


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