The Nontraditional Workweek: Embracing Workplace Flexibility as a Business Imperative

As the line between Americans’ work and non-work lives continues to blur, employers are more than ever seeing the value in offering flexible workplace arrangements to attract and retain a diverse and talented workforce.

Though offering flexible work arrangements was historically framed as a women’s issue, it is now viewed as more of a human issue, with men actually reporting higher and more frequent utilization rates (once a week or more) than women, according to the 2015 Work-Life Survey by the American Psychological Association’s (APA) Center for Organizational Excellence. Currently 51 percent of Americans report working for employers that offer some type of workplace flexibility.

While flexible arrangements may vary by organization and industry, their overall purpose is to give employees more choices, and more say, in their schedules — representing a shift from the traditional nine-to-five workweek.

“For a long time, our employment policies in this country focused on very rigid schedules — the idea of ‘punching a clock’ that people just grew accustomed to. So [offering flexible workplace arrangements] is about embracing change, thinking about working differently,” says Lisa Horn, director of Workplace Flexibility Initiatives with the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM).

Horn oversees SHRM’s strategic initiative When Work Works, a project — in partnership with the Families and Work Institute — that provides employers and human resources (HR) professionals with the tools, research, and effective practices for adopting flexible workplace arrangements.

“The way we define a flexible work arrangement is really talking about how, when, and where work gets done,” she says. “So [this may include] flextime and flex-place; it can be part-time arrangements, part-year arrangements, job shares, compressed workweeks, alternate start and stop times. … It’s basically giving employees some level of autonomy over how, when, and where they get their work done.”

These individualized workplace arrangements, and the companies that offer them, appeal to a wide range of workers — from millennials to working parents to baby boomers, as well as people from a variety of backgrounds, lifestyles, and situations. And as working Americans increasingly report a better fit between their work and personal lives, according to the APA’s survey, both employees and companies are reaping the benefits.

“When you work for an organization that you truly believe cares about you as an individual and as a person, and provides the resources you need to be at your best, then … you are willing to give more to that organization,” says David W. Ballard, head of the APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence. “So what they’re committing to you affects how willing you are to make commitments to [them].”

David W. Ballard
David W. Ballard

For Ballard, who designs and directs efforts related to health and well-being in the workplace, the business case for offering flexible workplace arrangements is obvious. In addition to helping improve both the mental and physical health of employees who use them, they have been proven to contribute to lower levels of stress, higher job satisfaction, and increased morale.

In turn, these marked improvements within a company’s workforce have a positive impact on the organization itself.

“Employers have found that giving employees control over decisions [around] the way they get work done on a day-to-day basis improves the quality of work life and the quality of home life for people,” Ballard says. “Those things are, in turn, linked to better business outcomes: higher productivity, lower absenteeism, and lower turnover.”

Because of the many benefits they provide on both sides of the table, flexible workplace arrangements are increasingly being viewed less as an employee perk and more as a strategic business imperative.

“Employers that embrace these types of work strategies certainly are putting themselves at a competitive advantage — and I think that trend is only going to grow, and it complements an organization’s diversity and inclusion strategy,” Horn says. “Oftentimes, there’s a way for HR professionals to position flexibility to suggest that there’s great synergy between that and [a company’s] diversity strategy.”

David W. Ballard, head of the APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence, presents an overview of the “Psychologically Healthy Workplace Model” to psychologists and business leaders at the APA’s Ninth Annual Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards ceremony in 2014. (Photo credit: Larry Canner Photography via the APA)
David W. Ballard, head of the APA’s Center for Organizational Excellence, presents an overview of the “Psychologically Healthy Workplace Model” to psychologists and business leaders at the APA’s Ninth Annual Psychologically Healthy Workplace Awards ceremony in 2014. (Photo credit: Larry Canner Photography via the APA)

The Best Talent for a Better Workforce
Attracting, retaining, and accommodating a diverse and talented workforce is what global professional services firm Deloitte Services LLP is all about. For more than a decade, the company has been offering flexible work arrangements to its 225,000-strong workforce.

“It’s all about creating an irresistible organization and appealing to the broadest pool of talent possible,” says Carolyn O’Boyle, talent director for Talent Strategy and Innovation with Deloitte. “I think this is the way the workforce wants to work, and if you want to continue to be a leader in terms of talent — getting the best talent, having them feel a relationship [with] and a connection back to your organization — if you want to be irresistible, you’ve got to be responsive to the changing needs of [the workforce].”

By taking a personal and individualized approach, Deloitte is able to offer employees flexibility while ensuring predictability — crucial elements toward ensuring that an arrangement works for both employee and employer.

“We try to work with every person to figure out what works for them, simply because everyone has very unique needs,” says O’Boyle, “and what works for me isn’t going to work for you, and what works for me today might not work for me a year from now.”

Although O’Boyle says offerings vary based on an individual’s situation, as well as what is important to an employee (coaching a son or daughter’s sports team, for instance), Deloitte’s typical alternative work arrangements include compressed workweeks (40 hours completed in four days instead of five), flextime (no set schedule), telecommuting, and part-time or seasonal hours, among others.

Another, related initiative, developed and implemented in summer 2015, is the Deloitte Open Talent (DOT) platform; its purpose is to build a diverse pool of talent in the form of freelance and contract workers.

“[It’s] been a priority and focus for us over the past 18 months as we seek to build an attractive way to engage with those types of workers — really a recognition that a growing population of people across all different generations are interested in that type of work arrangement,” O’Boyle says. “They don’t necessarily want to be with the same company in a full-time capacity. They want the flexibility that comes with [this] type of employment structure.”

DOT connects different departments within Deloitte with individuals of all backgrounds and abilities — from people with expertise in Web design to those with analytics skills — in order to quickly and easily pull them in on projects, as needed.

O’Boyle says the company’s open talent pool is composed of people of all ages, backgrounds, expertise, and lifestyles. She believes DOT helps bring a variety of perspectives to the table that Deloitte may not have otherwise had access to.

“There are a lot of millennials in that pool. There are also a fair amount of baby boomers who are getting ready to retire but aren’t quite ready to fully pull out of the marketplace yet; they’re looking to stay engaged in certain ways, and open talent becomes a nice way for them to do that,” she says. “So I think that opening up the talent pool is a way for us to have a lot more diversity, whether it’s diversity in backgrounds or cognitive diversity.”

Effective Flexibility
While both Horn and Ballard recommend the adoption of flexible workplace arrangements, they also emphasize that when it comes to individual companies, one size does not fit all. Because organizations and their needs, as well as the needs of each of their employees, vary greatly, Horn says that “flexible flexibility” is key.

“There are no two organizations that are the same, and … sometimes what flexible work arrangement will work in one department or division at an organization won’t work in another job division within that organization,” she says. “So we talk oftentimes about effective flexibility; the way we define that is, in order for the flexible work arrangement to be effective, it has to work for both the employer and the employee.”

However, she says that a company’s ability to offer alternative work arrangements depends on its culture and, in part, the industry in which it operates.

At Deloitte, O’Boyle says that what began as a “very programmatic” initiative focused on a reduced work schedule has since evolved into a “cultural expectation” by employees.

Yet while half of all Americans report having access to flexible work arrangements, only 25 percent report using these work-life benefits one or more times per month. According to Ballard, this lack of use is due to the stigma associated with not completing work on-site.

“There is still a feeling that if you’re not physically at your desk, in front of your computer at work, that that’s going to be viewed negatively — sort of out of sight, out of mind — or that managers or supervisors might think you are not as committed to your job or to the organization,” he says. “So people are sometimes reluctant to use those flexible work arrangements because they are afraid [doing so is] going to hurt their opportunities for advancement or [affect] their performance ratings.

“The unfortunate reality is there has been some research that suggests that supervisors at times do assign lower performance ratings to people who are not physically on the job, despite the fact that their actual performance might not be lower.”

Ballard believes the solution to this dilemma lies in how managers are trained. Because most supervisors are trained to manage workers by watching them, many are unprepared and unsure how to manage a remote and flexible workforce, he says.

“The challenge is figuring out ways to measure performance and to supervise and manage employees who may not be sitting at a desk from nine to five,” he says. “So we need to find better ways to evaluate and measure what it is they are accomplishing on the job.”

In addition to properly trained managers, organizations need to have structures in place to provide remote workers the tools and technology assistance needed to adequately do their jobs. However, Ballard also emphasizes the need for employees to meet certain criteria as well.

“People need the skills to be able to work flexibly; they need to have the self-motivation and organizational skills,” he says. “It takes the right employees with the right skill set, and the right job with the right support from the organization to be able to work effectively. So it is not easy to do, but when it’s done well, it has really good results.”

While specific projections in regard to their expansion in the workplace are tenuous, some, like Horn, believe flexible work arrangements will soon be engrained in the U.S. business culture.

“In the not-so-distant future, … the terms ‘workplace flexibility,’ or ‘flexible work arrangements,’ will no longer exist,” she says. “[At SHRM], we feel pretty strongly that this is just the way work is going to get done in the future — because of the diversity of the American workforce and the fact that we are a global economy, that work is 24/7.

“Companies that embrace flexible work arrangements now are setting themselves up for success, and in many ways, those that don’t are not only putting themselves at a competitive disadvantage, but they may ultimately no longer be in existence in the not-so-distant future.”●

Alexandra Vollman is the editor of INSIGHT Into Diversity.