The Surprising Downside Of Flextime

Your misperceptions about how employees use flextime and other flexible work arrangements could damage your business.
September 05, 2013

Are flexible work arrangements in your business actually hindering the very people they’re supposed to help? A recent Catalyst study of high-potential employees and their experiences with flexible work suggests so.

Despite high-profile cases like Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer’s ban on working from home, flexible work arrangements of some kind are the norm in business today, Catalyst found. A whopping 81 percent of companies surveyed, whether big or small, offered some kind of flexible work arrangement, which Catalyst defined in six ways: telecommuting, flexible arrival or departure, flextime, compressed workweeks, reduced work/part-time work, and job sharing.

But the study uncovered several major differences in how men and women use flexible work options—and some are surprisingly “myth busting.” While flexible work is often portrayed as something that's better suited to women (especially moms), Catalyst reports that both men and women in the study were equally likely to have taken advantage of flexible work options at some point in their careers.

In addition, while flexible work is often seen as a perk for parents, it’s just as important to employees without children, the study found. Fifty-four percent of those with children at home and 50 percent of those without children at home say flexible work is very or extremely important.

The most popular flex option for both sexes was flexible arrival and departure, used by 64 percent of both men and women. Both men and women are also equally likely to use flextime (32 percent vs. 30 percent).

But here’s where the differences kick in: Women are far more likely than men to telecommute (39 percent vs. 29 percent). In other words, while both genders want flexibility, men are more likely to choose the flexible option that doesn't cut into their “face time” at the office. Why? As a Harvard Business Review article put it, “Informally everyone knows you are penalized for using flexible work arrangements.”

The Flip Side Of Flexible Work

If you’re overly focused on face time—as many small-business owners are—you might be hurting your business as much as your female employees. Catalyst says that while both men and women rate flexibility as equally important, women in a situation without job flexibility are far more likely to downsize their career aspirations.

At companies with flexible work options, 94 percent of men and 83 percent of women in the survey say they aspire to top jobs. But at companies without flexible work options, the equation changes: While 83 percent of men still aspire to top positions, just 54 percent of women do. Keep in mind, this study focused solely on “high potential” employees—the ones you most want to attract and retain for the long haul.

So how can you create flexible work options that actually get used, rather than ignored, because employees are fearful of losing face (time)? Consider these options:

  • Use videoconferencing tools like Skype and GoToMeeting to let remote employees get some face time with the team, even when they’re not actually at the office.
  • Hold regular in-person meetings where telecommuters come into the office weekly, bi-weekly or monthly.
  • If you have lots of telecommuters, consider setting up a shared office space for them outside your main office that gives them the benefits of working closer to home but the perks of face time.

Of course, the biggest step you can take is to stop putting so much value on face time. As Catalyst’s report sums it up, “The bottom line is that face time doesn't lead to top performance outcomes. Employers and managers need to learn to trust their employees to get the job done and not be so concerned about when and where the work is completed as long as deadlines are met.”

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