Is Your Workplace Flexible Or Just Pretending To Be?

It's hard for many small-business owners to concede to flex-work hours. But if you don't reconsider, studies reveal that you may lose your best talent.
November 18, 2013

Employers give a lot of lip service to workplace flexibility these days. But if your small business is talking the talk and not walking the walk, you could be driving your employees away without realizing it.

Workplace flexibility is the top consideration for nearly three-fourths of U.S. adults when choosing a job, a recent Mom Corps study reports. What’s more, that percentage is even higher among working parents. What do workers want from the workplace—and what are the risks to your business if you’re not delivering?

Looking For Balance

First, the good news: Three-fourths (75 percent) of working adults Mom Corps polled say they have “at least a little” flexibility at work, up significantly from 68 percent last year. That’s a good thing, since flexibility has become even more important to workers. Seventy-three percent of working adults say flexibility is one of the most important factors they consider when choosing a job, up more than 10 percent from 2012, and a whopping 80 percent say flexible work options are just as important for non-parents as for parents.

Flexibility isn’t all about wanting more time for themselves, either. More than half (58 percent) of workers overall and 66 percent of parents say working from home once in a while enables them to get more work done. 

How badly do employees want flexible work? Nearly half (45 percent) of all workers and more than half (55 percent) of parents are actually willing to give up some of their salaries in exchange for flexible hours. And in what could end up costing you a lot of time and money—39 percent of workers overall and 47 percent of parents say they’ve either considered quitting or have actually quit jobs that weren’t flexible enough.

Workers are less wedded to the 9-to-5 job than they have been in the past. Just 46 percent of parents and 58 percent of workers overall prefer a traditional 9-to-5 workday. In fact, 48 percent of workers overall and 50 percent of parents would willingly turn to alternative work arrangements, such as temping, contracting, consulting or working part time, if it were necessary to get the work-life balance they crave.

There’s one demographic group that values flexibility even more than working parents: younger workers. Nearly 60 percent of 18-to-34-year olds would consider those types of alternative work arrangements in order to get better work-life balance. And that’s not idle talk—53 percent of men and 46 percent of women in this age group have either left or considered leaving a job because it wasn’t flexible enough. 

The truth is, there’s a big disconnect between what companies are saying about flexible work and the reality of what they’re doing. Despite the large percentage of workers who say flexible options are open to them, many aren’t taking advantage of those choices. In fact, nearly half (47 percent) of survey respondents overall, and more than half (54 percent) of parents, believe that asking for flexible work options makes it harder for them to get ahead in their jobs. Younger workers (18 to 34) are more likely than any other group to worry that asking for flexibility would hurt their careers.

Flex Test

Take a good, hard look at your business. You say you’re flexible, but are you really? Here are some warning signs your flexible work policies might be just window dressing.

  • You offer flextime or work-at-home options, but very few employees actually use them.
  • When an employee asks for flexible work arrangements, either on an ongoing basis or due to an emergency, you sigh heavily, roll your eyes or otherwise indicate they’re being a huge nuisance.
  • You don’t have a system for keeping work-at-home employees “in the loop,” such as using IM, video conferencing or conference calls to keep current on what’s going on in the office. As a result, they miss out on important information (and get left behind).
  • You make snide comments to your managers or to other employees about employees who use flexible work arrangements.

I’m not saying you should bend over backward or put your business in jeopardy so employees can use flex-work hours. Work-life balance is rarely in balance, so there are times when employees’ personal needs may have to come first, and times when your business’s needs will take priority. But with the vast majority of employees enthusiastic about flexibility—many so eager they’re willing to give up steady jobs to get it—you need to consider how you’ll create flexible options going forward to keep your business an employer of choice for the next generation of workers.

Read more articles on work-life balance.

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