Changing Workforce Expectations, Part 2: Flexible Work Environments

Today, in the second part of my ongoing series on Changing Workforce Expectations, I want to discuss the expectation for more flexibility in the workplace.

First let’s define flexibility.  There are really four types of flexibility as it relates to workforce expectations:

  • Work schedules.
  • Benefits options.
  • Work environments.
  • Career options.

Countries with developed economies have workforces that enjoy some level of flexibility, but many employees believe that taking advantage of flexibility can be risky in today’s business environment.  Here’s a synopsis of the landscape:

Flexible Work Schedules

Flexible work schedules focus primarily on policies that allow employees to request alternative times for starting or stopping work or compressing work hours, while still maintaining the same total number of agreed work hours.

In the U.S., the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) does not address flexible work schedules. Alternative work arrangements are a matter of agreement between the employers and the employee.  In contrast, flexible work policies in most countries of Western Europe are regulated, and in some cases mandated, to support flexible work schedules where feasible.

Across the globe, we are seeing a push for flexibility as people’s lives become more complex and dependent care issues become the domain of all family members. Yet in SHRM’s most recent state of employee benefits in the workplace survey, only 53% of organizations provided flexible work arrangements and only 34% said that a majority of their employees could take advantage of them.

Most employees still feel that requesting special treatment for family or personal needs may put them in a less than favorable position with employers.

Flexible Benefit Options

In the U.S., flexible benefits usually refers to  specific tax regulation, IRC Sec 125, that allows employees a choice of cafeteria plans for medical expense reimbursement, child-care reimbursement, and payroll savings for insurance premiums that can reduce tax costs.

Beyond those specific government-approved flexibility benefits, American workers also want expanded options in their overall benefit plans, including healthcare, wellness, retirement options, or benefits that support personal lifestyle choices. One-third of younger investors are highly worried about being able to afford long-term health care, compared with 18% among those older than age 60.

Globally, flexible benefits range widely depending on the amount of national healthcare and retirement offered by each region or nation. Flexibility often appears in the form of wellness programs or gap benefits that allow organizations to provide additions on top of government-funded programs.

In the U.S., more than 60% of employees in a large survey done by the American Psychological Association stated that they stayed with their current employers due to the benefits.  

Flexible Work Environments

It’s difficult to determine the actual number of teleworkers globally. In the U.S., 2.5% of the workforce (3.1 million people) considers home the primary workspace, and the growth of multiple days telecommuting increased 73% from 2005 to 2011. Today, most professional workers across the globe are connected 24/7 through their mobile devices, so the discussion about whether you can telecommute effectively has been essentially answered.

Yet during the recession, fewer employees reported telecommuting in 2010 than they did in 2008. The general belief is that employees felt it was imperative to increase face time and office connections.  

Flexible Career Options

Flexible career options are probably the least defined and most misunderstood area of what the future workforces are expecting. Organizations have created career paths and career planning models that are often based on what works best for the company – but may not work best for employees.

Although multiple engagement surveys show that more development and career options are key factors in raising engagement scores, Brandon Hall Group’s research on employee development and performance shows that access to coaches and mentors had a greater impact on performance outcomes and overall learning effectiveness than many structured career programs.

What coaches and mentors often provide, which structured development programs may not, are further options for development through introductions to internal and external networks and recommendations on job decisions and internal politics.

Another area of concern for employees is options for moving within an organization. Does the organization have lateral or cross-functional moves available, or could employees even move into a new role with less responsibility to learn a new area, but not risk future promotion opportunities within the organization? Organizations that simply have one-way talent movement can quickly find their best talent heading out the door due to lack of options.

The heart of the idea of flexibility with options versus riskis that employees have more options and choices that companies have honestly made available for them. This often means that organizations need to take a hard look at whether they’ve simply put some language up on a recruiting page, or they’ve actually put in place processes, tools, and support for employees who want truly flexible options.

Organizations that provide more flexible work environments, with cultures that support that flexibility, will find good talent heading in their direction.

Next time:  workforce expectations for new leadership models. 

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Stacey Harris



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