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Sloan Center News

Optimal Fit Means Flexible Management

30 October 2009—Having options is good. And when a particular option fits well with what you need, it’s even better.

That is how it is with flexible work options. From adjusted workday start and stop times, to time off for professional development, to family leave, to work-from-home choices, to delayed retirement, the list of flexible work options is growing for America’s workforce.

Plenty of research shows that flexible work options are linked to positive benefits in the workplace, including increased productivity and employee engagement. And when there is alignment between the types of job flexibility offered and what employees find useful, both employers and employees benefit.

For employees, the Sloan Center on Aging & Work found through its Age & Generations Study that having access to the flexible work options needed to fulfill work and personal needs was associated with:

  • Greater employee engagement;
  • Lower perceptions of work overload;
  • Better physical health and mental health; and
  • Increased satisfaction with work-family balance.

 

And for employers, the benefits go right to the bottom line. When the Center asked HR managers in the National Study of Business Strategy and Workforce Development (2006) about the factors motivating their organization to establish at least some flexible work options:

  • 62.4% of HR managers said to help retain highly skilled employees;
  • 61.4% of respondents said to increase productivity;
  • 53.3% said to reduce absenteeism; and
  • 47.6% said to save money because flexible work options are a good return on investment.

 

So with all this evidence pointing to the positive benefits associated with flexible work options, why has workplace flexibility not been so widely implemented?

What are the significant barriers? (See Figure 1)

According to the States as Employers-of-Choice Survey (2009) and the National Study of Business Strategy and Workforce Development (2006), the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College found the most frequently cited barriers to the successful adoption and utilization of flexible work options include difficulties supervising employees working in a flexible manner, concerns about treating all employees equally, the reactions of customers and clients, the abuse of policies, and co-worker resentment. And more than these, there is simply the overall difficulty of supervising individuals who are off-site, who put in different hours from their managers or team members, who are not physically present at some meetings, who may leave early, or who may not seem to be putting in the traditional amounts of face time.

Considering this litany of concerns, proposals for the adoption of flexible work options must sound intimidating, particularly for supervisors who are highly conscious of maintaining or increasing productivity in an economically challenging environment. Add to this the evidence from certain business sectors that some types of flexible options may not be a good match—say, sales staff wanting to work from home, or healthcare workers whose desire for flextime jeopardizes 24/7 patient care—and the apprehension or skepticism simply grows.

Based on the Center’s research findings, employer unease about the down sides of offering flexible work options ought to be less about simply insuring that workers be present. Not to pass the buck, but the real issue appears to be a management one—in particular, continued management support for the use of flexible options. Simply stated, what really needs to “fit” is effective management oversight. Fit in this case means re-orienting supervisors and co-workers with the different ways of working—as well as the benefits—that flexible options promote.

A fundamental management adjustment should be the recognition that flexible work options are not meant to confound management—quite the opposite. True, flexible work options are a challenge for supervisors because traditional methods of managing employees simply may no longer apply and because supervisors need to adapt their oversight to account for changes in working style. However, meeting this challenge is an imperative.

For managers in the Work & Family era, accommodating flexible policies and work-life balance necessitates a much more proactive style of supervision. To meet the demands of this work style, supervisors need to act as network hubs, linking their workforce, coordinating and facilitating their teams.

This may sound like more work for managers, but is it?

Transitioning to a focus on overall outcomes, managers can focus on devising detailed short- and long-term employee work plans with shared goal setting. Tying overall individual goals to broader organizational outcomes can empower employees to take a stake in their own performance while beginning to more effectively manage themselves. Add flexible options that fit into the mix and you can have a workforce that becomes more accountable in addition to being more engaged and productive.