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Popularity of Workplace Flexibility Is Slowly Increasing, but Big Companies Are Pulling Back

Oct. 10, 2017 — While workplace flexibility continues to be the benefit of the moment, there seems to be a disconnect between the prevalence of companies with formalized workplace flexibility programs and workers' desire for these programs.

In addition, the lack of part-time or job-sharing opportunities could be at fault for caregivers leaving the workforce.

"For various reasons, often related to caregiving, many women (and some men) opt out of the workforce altogether because a full-time schedule is untenable," said Jennifer Fraone, director of corporate partnerships for Boston College's Center for Work and Family. "They don't want to leave their employer or their career, but they don't feel they have a viable choice due to the lack of good part-time options."

Telework Increasing, But Slowly
Telework, one of the most talked-about components of workplace flexibility, also continues to face challenges. While nearly 90% of employers offer telework on an ad-hoc basis, it's most often discretionary and rarely includes training or other measures to maximize productivity, according to the results of WorldatWork's recently released 2017 "Trends in Flexibility" survey. In addition, telework has met with much-publicized opposition recently from big companies such as IBM, Yahoo and Best Buy.

The survey found that telework is up just 6% in 2017 from 83% in 2010 when the survey was first fielded. The slow rise could be partially attributed to the fact that telework is mostly at management's discretion. 48% of organizations surveyed indicated there is no flexibility strategy or philosophy across the organization, leaving nearly half (48%) of line managers to develop their own solutions and structure.

This lack of formalization and guidance across the company could be behind some of the recent headlines indicating companies are pulling workers back into the office. Since the '70s, technology giant IBM has had a reputation for encouraging flexibility. But earlier this year, it changed its tune by calling many of its workers back to the office.

In a July 2017 NPR interview, IBM Senior Vice President of Human Resources Diane Gherson said the changes affect about 2% of its 380,000 workers. She blamed the "wave of continuous innovation" for a shift in the way work gets done.

Another potential reason for the lack of formality and widespread embrace of telework is that HR professionals find resistance from top management. 48% said they get resistance from leadership on weekly telework programs.

Interestingly, companies that embrace telework tend to make an investment. More than half indicated they purchase laptops for teleworking employees, and one in three purchases cell phones, mobile data programs and software. Instant messaging programs are provided by more than half of responding organizations.

Flexibility as Prevention
In a 2016 workspan article, Jenya Adler and Michelle Boolton from Staples said that workplace flexibility is an important way to prevent workplace burnout. One in four employees said flexible schedules and the option to telecommute motivates them to do their best work, and nearly one-third noted work-life balance as a leading contributor to loyalty to the company.

Likely because telework is often at management's discretion, most employers don't take advantage of promoting flexibility as a way to recruit talent; only 16% reported using telework to attract workers; again, this could be because programs aren't formalized and offered across the organization, but instead left up to managers' discretion.

But this is in contrast to what job seekers want. In a recent survey from Manpower Group Solutions,  40% of job seekers said flexibility is one criteria that factors into their job search.


Jean Christofferson is managing editor of publications at WorldatWork.

Contents © 2017 WorldatWork. For more information, contact the Copyright Department at WorldatWork.

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