Research has shown that flexible work options enhance employee effectiveness. And yet, like good jobs in general, access to these options is limited and inconsistent.
Managers are almost always the gatekeepers of flexible work options. They can (and commonly do) ignore policies that discourage or even prohibit flexible work options, by providing those they supervise with informal access. They also can (and commonly do) restrict or penalize access in both implicit and explicit ways, putting flexible work options that are on the books out of employees’ reach.
Given this locus of power, it’s worth investigating what managers really think about flexibility and how firmly they hold their opinions. To find out, in June 2012 we surveyed 1,093 managers who work for a large employer in the finance and insurance super-sector—a quarter of that company’s managerial staff. The respondents were not only familiar with the survey topic but also had some experience with it in practice. Of course, the attitudes toward flexibility that we uncovered are not necessarily those of managers in other industries or organizations. Nonetheless, the responses to the questions we posed offer at least a glimpse of what managers in general think about workplace flexibility.
Measures of the range and strength of managers’ attitudes
We considered managers’ attitudes toward two types of flexibility: schedule flexibility (when employees work, such as being able to work earlier or later in the day, in compressed workweeks, or on some other schedule) and place flexibility (where people work, such as in a home office or off-site).
Figure 1 captures the range of managers’ attitudes toward three commonly suggested benefits of flexible work:
- Increases motivation
- Improves concentration
- Increases productivity
As the figure shows, managers tend to view both schedule and place flexible work options as beneficial. They are quite confident that these two types of flexibility enhance workers’ sense of motivation. In contrast, they are somewhat less confident that productivity and concentration improve.
To test the strength of the attitudes suggested by these responses, we turned our questions around and asked about the consequences of flexible work options from the negative standpoint of business risk. We wondered if, in this context, managers’ attitudes toward workplace flexibility would appear less favorable. Figure 2 captures managers’ attitudes toward five possible negative consequences of workplace flexibility:
- Makes managing employees more difficult
- Decreases organizational commitment
- Leads to isolation
- Decreases cooperation
- Decreases opportunities for employees to learn from one another (that is, mutual learning)
Here agreement indicates doubt that flexible work options are good for business.
Asking the questions this way revealed a marked, and previously unseen, difference in the way managers view schedule flexibility in comparison with place flexibility. Schedule flexibility does not worry them, but they see place flexibility as somewhat more risky in general, particularly with regard to opportunities for mutual learning among employees. Notwithstanding this skepticism, most managers were neutral or disagreed that negative outcomes (other than barriers to mutual learning) were likely with either type of flexibility.
What employers can do to achieve consistent access to flexibility
Our analysis of the survey results also showed that attitudes toward the two types of flexibility go hand in hand. Where managerial attitudes are positive, this is good news, because combining the two options is the best bet for work/life fit for many employees. For example, an employee who wants to start work later than usual on some days might also want to work at home once or twice a week. A manager who is open to either option is very likely to view both options favorably. Unfortunately, the reverse is also true. A manager who distrusts either option is also likely to distrust and close the door on both.
Our study suggests two tasks for employers who want to offer flexible work options consistently. They can support managers whose attitudes toward these options are favorable, by explaining clearly how workplace flexibility may benefit the organization. They can also convert skeptical managers, by presenting concrete evidence of workplace flexibility’s successes.