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The Power of Flexibility: Ways To Give Employees Choice, and Why It Matters

Flexibility in the workplace is a hot topic these days. During the pandemic, those who could work remotely enjoyed more flexibility than ever. Now, as many return to the office, workplace flexibility has emerged as a key retention factor. In this week’s blog, we look at why it’s so important and share ways employers can give employees flexibility in how, when, and where they work.

Why is flexibility important?

The importance of choice in the workplace and the need for greater flexibility isn’t new. A 2019 survey showed that 80 percent said they would be more loyal to their employers if they had flexible work options, and more than 25 percent said they’d take a 10 to 20 percent pay cut for more flexibility.1 Despite this data, some employers were reluctant to offer such flexibility, fearing a drop in productivity, poor work quality, or concerns over team cohesion.

Then the pandemic hit. Suddenly, we were thrust into a real-time experiment that tested the limits of remote work and flexibility. For the most part, it was a success—proving to employers that employees could be productive outside of a 9 to 5, office-based workday.

The question is whether employers will continue to support this flexibility. If a recent ManpowerGroup survey is any indication, the answer is yes—if they want to retain their best employees. The study found that nearly 40 percent of global candidates say schedule flexibility is now among the top three factors they consider when making career decisions. Additional ManpowerGroup research found 8 in 10 workers want a better work-life balance in the future, and 43% believe we will see the end of full-time, 9 to 5 work.

So what’s gotten us to this point so quickly? A few reasons stand out:

Employees took stock of what was truly important to them.

People’s expectations and feelings about work changed during COVID-19. Employees started to question what’s truly important in life and assess whether their current jobs were compatible. Workers have also become more vocal about what they will and won’t tolerate in the workplace—such as inflexible schedules, poor managers, and unrelenting demands. There’s been a definite reckoning among workers that there is more to life than work, and that employers need to acknowledge their “human” side.

Women and families simply need more support.

Millions of women have left the workforce or scaled back their hours since the start of the pandemic to care for children. In a sense, this exodus was not a huge surprise, as women tend to take on a larger share of unpaid childcare labor than men, even in non-pandemic times. But while men have returned to work at pre-pandemic levels, there were still 1.8 million fewer women working in January 2022 than in February 2020.

And those women who remain in the workforce are simply burned out. According to Gallup, the burnout gender gap has more than doubled since 2019, particularly for women in non-leadership positions. An analysis by healthcare start-up Maven and Great Place to Work found that “just by being a working mother, women are 28% more likely to experience burnout than fathers.”

So it’s not shocking that when Gallup asked women what is important to them when looking for a new job, 66% cited greater work-life balance and personal well-being versus 56% of men. Employers should take note. To hire and retain female talent in today’s tight labor market, it will be critical to lean into flexibility and support for life outside of work.

To be fair, the pandemic changed attitudes about work and parenting for both women and men. Working parents no longer feel so much pressure to “conceal” their parenting after it was on full display in Zoom meetings. So, in addition to the particular challenges women face, there is growing demand from all parents for employers to be more flexible and accommodating of today’s families.

Our mental health is at stake.

The mental health crisis was there before, but the demands and pressures of the pandemic brought it out of the shadows—hopefully for good. Fortunately, employers have responded with stepped-up Employee Assistance Program (EAP) benefits, access to tele-mental health, meditation, mindfulness and stress management programs, and more.

But, to truly reduce employee stress and improve mental health, employers also need to focus on making changes to workplace culture—and chief among them is flexibility. Employees increasingly want jobs that allow them to:

  • Prioritize their own well-being. In a 2019 FlexJobs study, 78% of people said having a flexible job would allow them to be healthier, and 86% said they’d be less stressed.
  • Set working hours that work best for their productivity and the demands of home and family.
  • Not feel guilty about leaving early or coming in late for a personal or family commitment.

Research also points to the importance of giving employees the flexibility to pursue personal passions or “side hustles.” Doing so boosts mental health, but it can also increase employees’ productivity in their “day jobs.” Harvard Business Review noted: “One way to grant employees the time they need to pursue passions is by giving them greater power to define their work hours—and setting clear expectations that employees should craft work hours around their passions.”

How to give employees flexibility.

So, how does an employer increase its adaptability and begin to introduce flexibility in the workplace? It’s not just about giving employees the choice to work remotely, though this is one solution. There are many ways to support flexibility, including non-traditional workplace benefits. Here are some ideas:

Allow employees to set their own schedules.

This enables parents to be there for school drop-off or pickup; makes it easier for caregivers to attend doctor appointments; and helps employees manage a chronic condition or undergo regular treatments, such as fertility or chemotherapy. It also allows people to work during the hours when they feel most productive. Our organization has employees all across the U.S., and we rely on this kind of flexibility. Ultimately, it’s beneficial for both the employees and the business.

Define synchronous vs. asynchronous work.

Are there ways teams can convene for a few days to hash out projects together—synchronous work—then go back to remote locations to complete the tasks—asynchronous work? Of course, this doesn’t work for all teams, but it’s something to consider.

Offer unlimited PTO.

This is a fairly new concept that is gaining in popularity. Unlimited PTO allows employees to take the time they need to recharge and refresh, gain better work-life balance, and even improve engagement through increased employee/employer trust. But to make it work, employees need to feel empowered to actually schedule time off!

Let employees choose where they work.

Hybrid, fully remote, or 100% in-person? This is a decision all companies are facing, and how you roll out your policy is essential. Employees are particularly attuned to this element of flexibility, so ask for feedback before making a blanket decision.

Consider 4-day workweeks.

It’s an idea that’s gaining some traction here in the U.S. Doing so could lead to better mental health, less stress, and better work-life balance. If you’re concerned about productivity, you could institute a compressed workweek, where employees work the same number of hours, just in a shorter time period.

Ensure the physical office allows for flexibility.

During the remote phase of the pandemic, many organizations took time to assess whether their physical workspace style allowed for the kind of flexibility that employees now want. This includes setting aside designated areas for collaboration and connection and quiet areas for focus work. Perhaps it now makes sense to designate “hot desks” for people who want to pop in occasionally, but may not require a dedicated space to themselves.

Take stock of caregiving support.

Employees are looking for caregiving support in several ways. These include:

  • Paid parental leave for both parents, including those who are adopting and those who experience pregnancy loss
  • Caregiving leave
  • Help finding elder or child care through EAPs
  • Onsite daycare centers
  • Breast milk shipping services for nursing mothers who travel
  • Backup daycare

Give employees the flexibility to pursue passions.

We touched on this idea earlier, but it bears repeating. Employers should begin to view employee passions not as detractors from work, but as activities that enhance work skills and boost overall employee well-being and engagement. Pursuing passions means employees may be out of the office at various times and employers need to be flexible. As the HBR article notes, employees also “need to know they shouldn’t feel guilty about leaving work or have to wonder whether doing so will jeopardize performance reviews.”

Explore opportunities for sabbaticals or career breaks.

Sabbaticals are more common in academia, but the idea is catching on in corporate America. For example, some companies offer long-term employees four weeks of paid leave to take a break, plan a dream vacation or take time to do something they love. And Google allows employees to spend up to six months working for non-profits on special projects. The flexibility and choice to take extended time off is a great way to combat burnout and increase employee loyalty, especially among senior talent.

Hold “no meeting” days.

Many organizations have designated Fridays as “no meeting” days so employees can schedule appointments or get focused work done. This can boost productivity while also giving people autonomy to focus on what they need to do that day.

Offer choice and control in work shifts.

What about those who can’t work from home, like healthcare workers, those in retail, shift workers, and manufacturing employees? There are still ways to offer them flexibility. Examples include self-scheduling, shift-swapping, compressed workweeks, part-time work, and job sharing. And if you’re still not sure how to help, just ask! They can provide feedback on what flexibility they need, and help implement programs and policies that can benefit everyone else.

It’s clear that we’re not going back to the old days—five days a week in the office, and everyone working the same, set hours. But, as we’ve tried to emphasize in this blog, flexibility is about more than just being able to work from home. It’s about how our employers support us across our whole lives, and offer the flexibility to structure our work based on what’s important to us.

We need to stop thinking about flexibility in terms of a solution for the “musts” of life—like picking up kids from daycare—and acknowledge that flexibility can also serve the “wants” of life that reinvigorate us and actually make us better at our jobs. If you’d like help working through what’s best for your employees’ well-being, visit our website or contact us at connect@webmd.net.

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