Fast Company

Recession and Work+Life Reality: Survey Finds Flex Unchanged, Careers Changed and Willingness to Sacrifice to Keep Job

(Note: please forgive the funky font issues in the post--can't figure out what's going on)

Last week, the state and regional unemployment figures increased again, and CEOs at the nation’s largest companies predicted more layoffs.  All of this took place just in time for the release of the 2009 Annual Work+Life Fit™ Reality Check survey results which found that 94% of full-time employees were willing to save their jobs by changing or reducing their schedule, or taking a pay cut. The Work+Life Fit™ Reality Check is a telephone survey of a national probability sample of 757 full-time employed adults, sponsored by Work+Life Fit, Inc. and conducted by Opinion Research Corporation March 26 – 30, that has a margin of error of +- 4 percent.  Other key findings included:

  • Nine in ten employees (90%) reported the recession has forced them to change their employment plans including nearly half saying they’re less likely to take a career break, for example to care for children or aging relatives.
  • But what has not changed during the economic downturn is work life flexibility. Most companies continue to offer the same or an increased amount of opportunities, and most employees reported their flexibility use has either increased or stayed the same during the past year.
  • More than half of those surveyed are optimistic that during President Obama’s administration that there will be new national legislation or programs that would make it easier for organizations to offer, and for individuals to have, more work life flexibility.

What does all of this mean?  In means, that regardless of economic boom or doom, work life flexibility is here to stay.  Instead of focusing on whether or not flexibility exists, our attention has to turn to figuring out how to use flexibility to help manage our businesses and our lives, both of which are forever changed by this recession.  

Change My Schedule, Cut My Hours or My Pay Before You Cut My Job

In order to save their jobs and help their employers reduce costs, nearly 8 in 10 employees would be willing to work a compressed work week, while nearly 60 percent would take additional unpaid vacation days or furloughs (several weeks off without pay). Nearly half would share their jobs with colleagues (48%), or take a cut in both pay and hours (47%). A little more than 4 in 10 would take a pay cut but work the same amount of hours or switch to a project-based contractor employment status (41%).  Just under a third say they would take a month or more unpaid sabbatical.

For organizations that looked first at who they could cut instead of how they could change by using workplace flexibility missed an opportunity to reduce labor, operations, equipment, real estate and health care costs.  As blogger CV Harquail points out in an excellent post on the subject, they’ve “left money on the table.”  And future revenues are at risk, too, because organizations will not be fully staffed when the economy improves.  For example, the mortgage industry was one of the first to shed jobs.  Now they can’t keep up with refinancing demands.  Opportunity lost.    

Again, CEOs at the nation’s 61 largest companies last week reported they expect more job cuts.  That’s the highest level noted since 2002 when the Business Roundtable began the quarterly CEO survey.  The fact is that layoffs will always be a possibility. And it’s not an all or nothing choice—flexibility or layoffs.  Hopefully, at some point, the 61 CEOs and other leaders planning job cuts will learn that a five percent layoff can sometimes cost more than a five percent pay cut.  All options need to be considered, and according to the research, a majority of employees would be willing to support a variety of flexible approaches.  

The same kind of flexibility that can be used to manage labor costs can also save other expenses.  BDO Seidman, LLP, a national professional services firm, sees workplace flexibility as more than a way to minimize layoffs.  Flexibility is the way BDO runs their business.

The firm’s CFO, Howard B. Allenberg, estimates, “If our BDO Flex strategy allows us to reduce our space requirements or not take on as much additional space by just five percent going forward, we could save more than $1.7 million per year in office and equipment rentals and related occupancy costs.”    

The Recession Has Minimal Affect on Work Life Flexibility Offerings or Use

Only 2 percent reported they currently do not have any work life flexibility.  Of the 98 percent who do, nearly 20 percent reported they have more work life flexibility now than at this time last year while 62 percent said they had the same and only 17 percent reported less.  Overall:

  • 98% of respondents indicated they currently have work life flexibility.
  • 81% of respondents indicated the amount of flexibility they currently have either increased or stayed the same from this time last year.
  • 85% said the flexibility opportunities at their company either increased or stayed the same last year.
  • 85% reported there was either an increase or no change in the likelihood they would use work life flexibility with the increase in the amount of layoffs at companies, proving that job insecurity, for an overwhelming majority, has not scared employees away from flexibility.

“Workplace flexibility has repeatedly demonstrated a remarkably tenacious streak during previous economic downturns,” according to Kathie Lingle, Executive Director of Alliance for Work-Life Progress.  “Erroneously labeled ‘soft’ by the uninformed, flexibility practices appear to be holding their own in these particularly tough times.  Flexibility requires little to no monetary investment because at its core, it’s a management philosophy.  It may morph and adapt, but it will most definitely survive”

Flexibility is surviving the recession. Other surprising findings given the economic climate included:

  • While 66% said they didn’t improve or use flexibility for one or more reasons, this was a decrease from 71% in 2007.
  • Only 22% said fears about losing their job kept them from using or improving their work life flexibility, and
  • Fewer respondents, when compared to previous years’ findings, let concerns about making less money, hurting their career, and/or the perceptions of others get in their way of flexibility. Interestingly, women (38%) were significantly more likely than men (28%) to report being challenged by the fear they might make less money.

That doesn’t mean, however, more can’t be done.  Employees reported the most difficulty with how to make flexibility work with the type of job they have (42%). Every job is flexible in some way, but we need to improve the process for matching flexibility with the job, and finding more flexible ways work can be done.  (Click here or more detailed findings).

Recession Forces Dramatic Changes in Employment Patterns but Working More Doesn’t Have to Mean Less Flexibility...It Will Mean More

While the recession has had little effect on work life flexibility, it has forced 90 percent of those surveyed to change their employment plans. Nearly 60 percent expect to stay with their current employer longer than first planned (58%) and do some form of work during retirement (58%).  More than half (56%) reported saving more and spending less in anticipation of future job changes.  And, in what could have significant consequences for child and elder care, 47 percent are less likely to voluntarily leave the workforce for a period of time.  Women (56%) were significantly more likely than men (40%) to say they are less likely to voluntarily leave workforce.

This means that both businesses and individuals face unprecedented financial demands, but that doesn’t mean there has to be less workplace flexibility. In fact, it’s the opposite.  There will need to be even more effective flexibility—not just access, but real meaningful use by individuals and businesses.  We need to learn how to structure and use flexibility so it meets personal and business goals.  As the research shows, flexibility is not about working less, it’s about working differently.  That’s what most people want, and business needs.

When employees were asked about the type of workplace flexibility they would like to use in the coming year, 8 in 10 wanted the “occasional” opportunity to adjust their schedule (71%) or work from a location other than their office (57%).  And even of the 73 percent that said they’d like to make their work life flexibility arrangement “official,” only 12 percent wanted to work fewer hours.

Employees are Optimistic about President Obama’s Support

More than half (56%) of those surveyed are optimistic that during President Obama’s administration there will be new national legislation or programs that will make it easier for organizations to offer, and for individuals to have, more work life flexibility. Women (62%) are significantly more optimistic than men (51%), and more women (67%) than men (55%) believe there should be such legislation or programs.

What do you think?  For the next few weeks, I will be blogging in both this and my Work+Life Fit blogs about specific findings.  I hope you will chime in and share your opinions.  To me, the survey confirms that our work+life reality has been changed fundamentally by the recession. We need to start talking about the ramifications that will last long after the recovery begins.  Join me in the discussion.  

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2 Comments

  • Jessie Towns

    I am open to workplace flexibility, obviously I'd prefer not to have a pay cut but would prefer that to loosing my job altogether. Our company hasn't considered workplace flexibility thus far and most of us are nervous of job cuts which is why I am saving as much as possible and cutting costs everywhere I can. I've canceled the cable and my cell phone contract and just got a vary neat Tracfone which saves me plenty every month. I would willingly take an unpaid vacation if the company required it.

  • Terry Neese

    Fascinating survey. I’m looking forward to reading your future blogs about the specific findings. It’s obviously very clear that people are extremely open to workplace flexibility and I hope our government can work to support this as well. I believe we need to be able to provide both men and women with workplace policies that are personal, voluntary, portable, flexible and fair. Hopefully businesses will be able to see this not only as a way to keep employees satisfied, but also as a sound business practice to cut costs and retain/open their talent pool. Thank you for your continued work in this very important field! http://www.familyissues.ncpa.o...