Time to Move from "If" Flex, to "Why" and "How" Flex...

Over the past two weeks since we released the thought-provoking results of the 2009 Work+Life Fit Reality Check, I’ve been asked by a number of people what I think the findings mean.  To me, the results confirm that it’s time, once and for all, to move the conversation from “If work life flexibility exists,” to answering the questions:
  • How to make it really work for everyone, individuals and employers, in boom and doom periods and
  • Why flexibility is important for both employee work+life fit but also the day-to-day operation of the business.
Before we move forward, it’s important to note that these results are based on a telephone survey of 757 full-time employed adults, sponsored by Work+Life Fit, Inc. and conducted by Opinion Research Corporation.  With a margin of error of +/- 4 percent, this means that 95 out of 100 times the results would be within the +/- 4% if the total population were interviewed.

Flexibility in How, When and Where Work is Done is Here to Stay—“If Flex” is no longer the question
  • 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.  
As Kathie Lingle, Executive Director of Alliance for Work-Life Progress commented in response to these findings, “Workplace flexibility has repeatedly demonstrated a remarkably tenacious streak during previous economic downturns. 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.”

Understandably, these findings about the resilience of flexibility are somewhat counter-intuitive in the face of the worst recession in a lifetime. I have heard , “I find those results hard to believe given that we are hearing anecdotally that people are afraid to ask for anything.”  Let’s think about how we defined work life flexibility in the survey: “Having flexibility in when, where and how you work.  It allows you to flexibly allocate time and energy between your work life and personal life.”  

To me this says that people do have flexibility, but perhaps it’s not exactly the flexibility they would want (we will talk more about this in a minute).  For example, someone may want to reduce their schedule, and they haven’t pursued it, but they do have day-to-day flexibility or the ability to telecommute.   

The important point is that the flexibility exists.  It’s not the foreign concept that it might have been even five years ago.  Are there organizations that don’t offer any flexibility?  Sure.  Are there employees who don’t have any?  Sure.  But the findings show that these examples are no longer the norm.  They represent a minority, and the primary focus can now shift to broadening the business case for flexibility and improving implementation so it really works for everyone.  

Broadening the Business Case – Expanding the Answer to the Question “Why Flex?”  

The findings also point to an opportunity to broaden the business case for work life flexibility especially since 9 out of 10 people surveyed said they would accept a change or reduction in their schedule or take a pay cut to avoid layoffs. Those strategies are also traditional types of flexibility, but here they are initiated to deal with a business challenge that otherwise would mean job cuts.

For the past twenty years, flexibility in the form of reduced schedules, sabbaticals, and job sharing has primarily been driven by employee-need.  What this survey says is employees understand that these same flexible ways of working can also fulfill a business-need. In other words, when sales are down, companies aren’t being paid as much for goods and services and it’s harder to borrow money, flexibility helps employers cut operating and labor cuts, but keep jobs. (Note: let me reemphasize that I am not saying layoffs will never happen; however, having alternatives to job cuts helps when companies start cutting into flesh and bone which many are starting to do.)

After studying and writing about this issue for over a year, I believe the willingness of both male and female respondents to sacrifice pay and schedule to manage through the recession with their jobs intact is less desperation than pragmatism and shared sacrifice.  

This recession is an opportunity for flexibility to finally come in from the “nice thing to do, perk and benefit” wilderness and become a standard part of the way the business operates, and a standard part of the way people manage their work and life in up and down cycles.  

We may see another current example of the operational application of work life flexibility as part of disaster preparedness in dealing with the potential impact of the swine flu.  Companies that are already comfortable with telecommuting will continue to operate even if everyone works from home.  Those that aren’t won’t.   Again, same traditional flexibility, just applied to meet a business need.  

“How Flexibility…” or How to We Make Flexibility Really Work to Achieve Goals of Employees and the Business?

If work life flexibility is now a given, and the broad personal and business impact is understood, then implementation becomes more important than ever.  But, right now, it’s not happening, as evidenced by the following findings from the survey:


  • Yes, 98% of respondents said they had work life flexibility, but 66% indicated that they would have improved or used that flexibility had it not been for one of a number of challenges or reasons.  In other words, they have it, but it could be better.  And the prime culprit cited was their “type of job” (42%).  We need to focus on aligning which types of flexibility will work for which jobs, as well as making the way work is done inherently more flexible so the type of job becomes less of a barrier.  These are implementation issues.
  • 9 out of 10 employees say they would be willing to accept a change or reduction in their schedule or take a pay cut to avoid layoffs, but are 9 out of 10 companies incorporating flexibility into their downsizing strategies?  Not from what I’ve been able to tell from my research.  Authentic Organizations blogger and former Darden Business School professor, CV Harquail, tried to determine how many CEO’s were leaving “money” on the table because they weren’t being more flexible in their cost-cutting, and found that many were.

    As the survey of 100 top CFOs we conducted last summer found, they understand at least some of the broad bottom line applications of flexibility.  The breakdown occurs in the implementation with only 13 out of the 100 saying their organization has a formal approach to flexibility in place, and a senior leadership team that sees flexibility as a strategic lever.  The remaining 87% either have no formal approach in place and/or have a senior leadership team that sees flexibility as a nice perk which makes execution against a business objective difficult if not impossible.  

So that's my macro-analysis of the findings.  What do you think? Do you agree that “If flexibility” is no longer the question, and we need to turn out attention to “why and how?”  Join me for the next few weeks as I dive deeper into each one to uncover further the picture that emerges.  





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2 Comments

  • Cali Williams Yost

    Great point, Betsy, so glad you mentioned Bob Drago's work. A key piece of the "how" flex puzzle is team-based work innovation...challenging many of the assumptions around "this is how we do it."
    Really? Why?

  • Betsy Bagley

    One of the keys to implementing flex will be leveraging that sense of shared sacrifice illustrated in this research in individual work groups. Bob Drago discusses how teams can support workplace flexibility in his book, "Striking a Balance". I imagine that many who respondeded that their type of job kept them from greater flexibility are parroting what they have heard from their managers and team members. An inclusive team process could become a think tank for achieving organizational goals while at the same time supporting team members in their personal lives. Of course, this requires the ability to work past a social norm that encourages us to compartmentalize our work and family, but flexibility is based on the realization that the two are intertwined.