Marissa Mayer, the new chief executive of Yahoo, announced in February that employees would no longer be permitted to work remotely and would instead have to come into the office. According to the New York Times, “Yahoo’s policy change has unleashed a storm of criticism from advocates of workplace flexibility who say it is a retrograde approach, particularly for those who care for young children or aging parents.”
In the United States, where the majority of companies offer flexible work arrangements, Ms. Mayer’s decision clearly contradicts the mainstream. A global business survey ranked the United States among the top 10 countries hospitable to workplace flexibility. In Japan, Yahoo’s crackdown would be less surprising; there, only 18 percent of companies allow flexible schedules.
The differences in acceptance of workplace flexibility from one country to another are especially interesting, given that the incentives for companies to adopt workplace flexibility arise at least in part from globalization. The international scope of business demands an ever-increasing reliance on modern technology and social networking tools, making the division between work and play fuzzier. Most Americans would agree that we need to reinterpret and expand the traditional (and somewhat rigid) ideas of where, when, and how we work. An employer’s sensitivity and receptivity to workplace flexibility signal to employees that their boss is willing to address and accommodate their diverse needs and help them achieve work/life balance. Employers here and in the other top-10 countries use flexibility as an innovative human resource tool to attract and retain the best people in the global talent pool. Potential operational benefits of workplace flexibility such as reduced overhead costs on real estate and energy, lower job turnover, and higher productivity can also pave the way for favorable employee outcomes, such as better work/life balance, increased work engagement, and greater job satisfaction.
Against the backdrop of these incentives, researchers at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work wondered about variations in perceptions of workplace flexibility around the world.
The results of a survey we undertook in 2009-2010 revealed some illuminating contrasts across countries in employee perceptions of benefits that are key to workplace flexibility. As we expected, employees in the United States demonstrated the most* widespread agreement about the paybacks of workplace flexibility. Japan, at the other end of the spectrum, had the lowest score. Interestingly enough, two developed/developing country pairs (the United States and India; the United Kingdom and Brazil) exhibited very similar flexibility scores, suggesting that awareness of the advantages of workplace flexibility is not confined to high-income countries. Everywhere, females, employees with caregiving responsibilities, and employees with graduate degrees responded more favorably to flexible work, underscoring the influence of social parameters on workplace flexibility.
The variations we found in employees’ perceptions of workplace flexibility defy a one-size-fits-all human resources approach. Ideally, flexibility policies ought to be culture- and employee-specific. Periodically, employers need to evaluate the divergence between policy and practice to generate maximum leverage. After all, carefully designed and efficiently implemented workplace flexibility policy can and should benefit employers and employees alike.
For more information about research on employee perceptions of workplace flexibility, click here.
Doctoral Research Assistant
Sloan Center on Aging & Work, Boston College