Despite Research Supporting Flexible Work Schedules, Angst Still Exists

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SAN FRANCISCO—When a woman at a large Denver-based dialysis company told those attending the 2013 Workflex Conference that she does her job almost exclusively from her California home, the next words out of her mouth said a lot about lingering attitudes toward flexible work schedules.

“Don’t tell anyone; I don’t want to get busted,” the woman said, to laughter from the audience gathered in a San Francisco hotel for the Oct. 29-30 conference, hosted by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) and the Families and Work Institute.

That comment, even if meant in fun, revealed that, while telecommuting and flexible schedules are becoming the new “normal,” ambivalence, angst and guilt persist about employees who do their jobs from home or coffee shops, who have compressed workweeks or who have other flexible arrangements.

Such attitudes aren’t helped by recent developments at a couple of the country’s high-profile companies: Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer created a national stir by requiring all workers to come into the office; Best Buy followed suit by banning telecommuting in favor of the traditional onsite 40-hour workweek. Both companies said the changes would help employees better collaborate and generate ideas while working face to face.

SHRM board member Jose Berrios said that Yahoo and Best Buy probably instituted the bans because both companies were struggling to keep pace with competitors. Regardless, those struggles shouldn’t have required eliminating flextime programs if they were managed properly in the first place, he observed.

“It reflects an old mentality—that you’ve got to have people there for face time, which, to me, is silly,” said Berrios, who is the immediate past chair of SHRM’s board of directors. “Those programs were probably not administered very well internally. … If your front-line supervisors aren’t effectively trained and don’t understand how [flextime] fits into [a] strategy, then you’ve got a real problem.”

Ellen Galinksy, president of the Families and Work Institute, discussed companies that won this year’s Sloan Award for Excellence in Workplace Effectiveness and Flexibility. The award is part of a SHRM- and Institute-sponsored program that honors companies whose flexible workplaces produce employees who succeed at work and home.

One Sloan winner, the global tax services firm Ryan, embraced flextime after it nearly lost a star employee.

The employee told her supervisor she loved the firm and her work but had to quit because she couldn’t balance her home life with her job demands, said Galinksy, whose nonprofit institute provides research about the changing workplace and family.

“The workload wasn’t sustainable,” Galinksy said. “[Her supervisor], having heard this for a while, at that point said, ‘We’ve got to try something new.’ If you want to look at role models … what has been done at Ryan [is] brilliant because they headed off the problem.”

According to Families and Work Institute research, employees increasingly experience a “time famine”—not having enough hours in the day, explained Lisa Horn, co-leader of SHRM’s Workplace Flexibility Initiative. As a result, workers are experiencing greater stress levels and other negative health effects, are more distracted on the job and are less productive.

Horn cited some reasons for this time deficit:

There has been a major rise in dual-earner couples. “They are the norm today,” she noted. “Men and women have reported an increase in work-family conflicts. In fact … men now report higher levels of work-life conflict than females.”

The number of employees providing care to children or aging parents is growing dramatically. One in two workers expects to provide elder care in the next five years, Horn said. One in five already is.

The workforce is aging. More than two-thirds of U.S. workers are 40 or older, compared with 39 percent in 1977. “That number will only increase. We need flexible options to keep those employees working so we don’t lose their institutional knowledge.”

Horn pointed out that flexible work arrangements can reduce worker stress by 25 percent, save money on real estate, produce rested and content workers who interact more positively with clients, and give companies an edge when luring talented applicants.

Four in five workers say flexible work schedules are important or very important when deciding on a new job, while employees with flexible arrangements are almost twice as likely to stay in current jobs and four times as likely to be highly engaged in their work, she added.

“Most companies are struggling with … attracting talent and retaining talent and making sure the talent is highly engaged,” said Berrios, who noted that many employees who are leaving Yahoo because of Mayer’s ban are being scooped up by competitors. “You can’t drive business results if you don’t have engaged employees.”

Dana Wilkie is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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