The Real Reason Most Employers Aren't Embracing Flexibility

I was recently reminded of how difficult it is to “have it all” - career and family.  Last month, I was visiting my daughter and son-in-law and incredible grandchildren, and it all came rushing back as if it were yesterday.  The endless logistics of who is picking up, stress of what to do with a sick kid, how to beat the clock to arrive at daycare before it closes.  When my daughters were babies, I went back to work and I distinctly recall the stress of being in traffic before daycare pick up time. Fortunately, once they were a bit older, they went to a daycare center near my home where their Dad picked them up most days. I was supremely fortunate, exponentially more so than most career women I know,  that my husband had the more flexible schedule as a university professor, and his mother raised him to be a full egalitarian partner - something I only fully appreciated once married with two small kids. 

So here I am, a generation later, a grandmother watching the same day-to-day stress unfold.  Yet flexible work options solve some of this and they’re far more prevalent in today’s workforce, aren’t they?  Or, are they? By flexible work, I don’t mean the myriad of detailed flex work policy specifics. I prefer a broader definition which refers to employee autonomy, which simply suggests some autonomy to determine when and where employees get work done.      

Flexibility Isn’t Just for Employers to Feel Good

A solid body of research shows that flexible work arrangements are consistently among the most prized benefits that both employees value and candidates seek, and among the more cost-effective initiatives a company can offer. A recent AON Survey on Benefits and Trends in 2019 (p.15) suggests employee expectations of the work experience are changing rapidly and that employees now demand more flexibility.  I have personally been involved in facilitating numerous employee survey results and time and again there are a staggering amount of write-in comments begging to be heard by management about flexibility. But beyond benefits and perks - there’s data to suggest real business gains, and research that demonstrates positive impact on productivity.

So Why Aren’t We Seeing Much More Employee Autonomy?

If the benefits to employee well-being, engagement, and the bottom-line are clear, what is wrong with employers? Why haven’t they embraced this seemingly obvious win-win? Why don’t more organizations implement flexible work arrangements? And of the flexible work options that do exist, are they real or merely lip service? There is a laundry list of claimed barriers over which much ink has been spilled, ranging from lack of leadership buy-in, unwillingness to experiment, interfering with perceived team effectiveness, lack of training of employees and managers, insufficient remote technology and tools, and more. But if we peel back the onion, there is clearly more at play.  

I think we can all agree the barrier is no longer lack of remote technology and tools.  In the early days of workplace flexibility, this was a huge hurdle. But it is 2019, and we seem to have mastered that one. On a personal level, using video chat with my grandchildren still isn’t ideal - I would prefer to be physically present, but it is perfect for the work setting. I don’t need to hug my colleagues, we can accomplish what we need over Skype or Zoom.   

In my experience, there is a primary reason why there are not more flexible workplaces yet; it is painful to write, but it is the elephant in the room about flexibility: far too many managers still do not trust their employees. They believe that left on their own without close supervision they would goof off or deliver less.  There is absolutely no data to support this belief. On the contrary, all the research suggests that people are more productive, not less, more engaged, not less, more grateful and committed, not less, when given greater freedom regarding when and where to accomplish their work. In any case you should be evaluating employees on their performance and results and not time spent at their desk (but that's for another post). It is smarter to deal with a lonely outlier abusing flexibility, and run the company for the vast majority who deserve to be trusted - who will deliver more in return. 

We do talk about and study trust at work - but we are typically focused on whether employees trust bosses, and employers, not the other way around. Yet trust is indeed a two-way street, is it not?

Organizations may defend themselves saying “it’s still a face-time culture”, but that’s just code for lack of trust.   Physical presence is still confused with delivering results.  People think that if they can walk by your desk and see you working, you are working. That is so 20th century.  As thought leader Nirit Cohen on the future of work states as an obvious fact, we have "transitioned work from a place we go to, to something we do".   

If You Want Results, Give Flexibility a Chance

In fact, those employers who are afraid of autonomy have it the wrong way around - the research shows that if you trust your employees with some autonomy about when and where to get their work done, it can cause them to be more engaged and even to go “above and beyond” at work.  Or as Daniel Pink says it “control leads to compliance, autonomy leads to engagement”.  The authors of MAGIC: Five Keys to Unlock the Power of Employee Engagement describe this connection in the Autonomy chapter, (the A in MAGIC) as “the power to shape your work and environment in ways that allow you to perform at your best” but they also clarify what autonomy is not. Autonomy does not mean working in isolation, doing whatever you feel like, or working without a net.  The authors categorize autonomy into 4 types: Spatial (the where), Social (the who), Task (the what), and Temporal (the when). My discussion about flexibility is targeted to spatial and temporal autonomy. 

A fascinating example from the book is that of a food services company - not the kind you typically associate with greater flexibility since they need to cover shifts. A system was implemented in which employees could log into a scheduling app from home and input their availability and their preferred shifts. Miraculously, all shifts were covered with very little “noise”. There can also be autonomy on a more individual level.  For example, I asked a family member last week how the new commute into the city was going, and it turns out he drives home in the early afternoon about twice a week to miss the heavy traffic and takes the rest of the day’s meetings virtually from home. Of course not every job lends itself to these options - but with a little creativity there are more ways to offer autonomy than you think. 

Some How-Tos on Embracing Flexibility

  • Establish crystal clear expectations for employees, monitor progress, repeat. Or as the authors of MAGIC put it “ambiguity is lethal to autonomy”.   Measure goal progress, and results, not hours at a desk.

  • Apply across the board to drive engagement, productivity, and a sense of fairness - rather than on an exception basis, ie to care for a sick child, or to wait all day for the plumber.  Flexibility gets an undeserved bad reputation when associated with exceptions.

  • Do not categorize.  Autonomy is not just for women, it’s not just for parents, it’s not just for Millenials. 

  • Remember not to swing too far the other way - 100% remote work isn’t ideal either. The very best productivity comes from a blend of in person and remote work. 

  • If you’re a candidate looking for your next opportunity: shop for flexibility, this will end up being one of the most valued currencies. 

  • If you’re an employee - identify some small ways to increase your productivity with greater autonomy over where and when you deliver, and propose them to your manager as an experiment.

  • If you’re a manager - give it a shot with your team if you can't influence the entire organization, just make sure to call it a pilot and apply it to everyone. Great things have happened in the name of experimentation. Brainstorm some ways to generate even modestly more autonomy.

If you’re not completely convinced, take a leap of faith and experiment with giving some more autonomy in where and when work is delivered. 

I'm willing to bet you’ll see  it works.   

Ilana Meskin