What Is Workplace Flexibility?
The Center on Aging & Work defines workplace flexibility to mean that employees and their supervisors have some choice and control over when, where, how work gets done, and what work tasks are assumed by which employees/work teams.
Over seventy-eight percent of the respondents to the Center's Age & Generations Study reported that having access to flexible work options contributes to their success as employees to a “moderate” or “great extent” and 90% reported that having access to flexible work options contributes to their overall quality of life to a “moderate” or “great extent.”
Further, a 2008 survey by Randstad found that flexible work hours are among the top three benefits employees identify as contributing to “happiness at the workplace”, with more than 4 of every 10 of the employees indicating that flexible work hours and increased paid time off are important, just after competitive pay and health insurance.
Surveys consistently find that a majority (70-80 percent) of workers aged 50 and older state that they expect to continue to work past the traditional retirement age; however, most of these older workers prefer to work in a way that is different from the standard 9-to-5, five-day work week. A 2005 survey of Baby Boomers conducted by Merrill Lynch found that 42 percent said they want to cycle in and out of work, 16 percent want to work part-time, and 13 percent want to start their own businesses. Only 6 percent want to work full-time, and 17 percent said they no longer want to work for pay (with 6 percent expressing other preferences).
Data from the Age & Generations Study suggest that respondents from Generation X and older Baby Boomers were more likely than the rest of the generation groups to say that having access to flexible work options contributes to their success as an employee “to a great extent”.
Workplace flexibility has been widely touted as essential in today’s workplace, having been positively linked to a variety of individual, family, and business outcomes. Data from the Center's Age & Generations Study suggests that having access to the flexibility needed to fulfill work and personal needs was found to be predictive of greater employee engagement, lower perceptions of work overload, better physical health and mental health, and greater satisfaction with work-family balance.
According to the Center’s National Study of Business Strategy and Workforce Development, 55% of respondent employees indicated that their organizations make a connection between workplace flexibility and workplace effectiveness “to a moderate/great extent”. Another study found that greater access to flexible work arrangements was associated with higher life satisfaction, fewer mental health problems, less interference of job and family life, and lower levels of negative spillover from job to home.
There are many different types of flexibility, including, but not limited to the following five broad categories of options:
- Flexibility in the Number of Hours Worked
Employer provides options for the number of hours one works in a given week, month or year. Examples include: part time work, part year work, job share, phased retirement, and having input into overtime.
- Flexible Schedules
Employer provides options with regard to work schedule. Examples include: frequent requests for changes in starting/quitting times, occasional requests for changes in starting/quitting times, compressed work week, schedule that varies from typical schedule, choices about shifts.
- Flexible Place
Employer provides options with regard to the location of work. Examples include: being able to work from home/remote site, or being able to select or periodically/seasonally change the work location (if the employer has more than a single worksite).
- Options for Time Off
Employer allows the employee to take time off, for either short or extended periods of time, so that the employee can meet responsibilities at work and/or at home. Examples include: paid leave for caregiving/personal/family responsibility, extra unpaid vacation days, paid/unpaid time for education/training, paid/unpaid sabbatical, and paid time to volunteer.
- Other Options
There are several other flexible work options that employers might offer that do not fall into any of these categories. Examples include: control over the timing of breaks, and allowing employees to transfer to a job with reduced responsibilities and reduced pay, if they want to.
When employees consider whether they should use different types of flexible work options, they tend to think about three basic questions:
- Would my supervisor and work team be supportive of my use of flexible work options?
Nearly two-thirds (61.7%) of respondents to the Center's Age & Generations Study agreed to a “moderate/great extent” that their team leaders/supervisors support the use of effective flexible work arrangements and approximately half agreed/strongly agreed that the members of their work teams were supportive of flexible work options.
- Do I anticipate that there might be any negative consequences if I use a particular type of flexible work option?
In general, 40.6% of the respondents to the Center's Age & Generations Study felt that there might be negative career consequences associated with the use of flexible work options (those responding “somewhat agree”, “agree”, or “strongly agree”).
- If I use a particular type of flexible work option, will it fit with my needs and help me to better manage my work and/or my family responsibilities?
A majority of the participants in the Age & Generations Study (58.7%) report that they have access to the flexible work options they need to fulfill their work and personal needs to a “moderate/great extent”.
The employers who participated in the Center’s National Study of Business Strategy and Workforce Development offered insights about factors that could make it difficult to implement and/or expand workplace flexibility initiatives. The top five barriers include:
- Concerns about abuse of policies (42.3%).
- Concerns about the reactions of customers and clients (41.2%).
- Difficulties with supervising employees working in a flexible manner (40.9%).
- Concerns about loss of productivity (40.6%).
- Concerns about treating all employees equally (40.1%).
Flexible work arrangements are currently available to varying extents in the U.S. workplace. A recent series of reports from the Center on Aging & Work's Talent Management Study show that the extent to which flexible options are available varies according to industry sector, employer size, and other factors, such as the degree to which employers feel pressure to recruit and retain workers.
In all industry sectors combined, "only one-third of employers (31%) felt they had established options for employees to work in a flexible manner to a moderate/great extent." Retail organizations offer flexible work options at a comparable rate with employers operating in all other sectors, with approximately 31% of employers having established flexible work options to a moderate or great extent , while in the manufacturing sector, only one in five (18%) organizations have established options that allow employees to work in a flexible manner to a moderate or great extent.
For more information about workplace flexibility from the employee’s perspective, check out our Issue Brief “Workplace Flexibility: Findings from the Age & Generations Study" (January 2009).
For more information about workplace flexibility from the employer’s perspective, check out our Research Highlight "National Study of Business Strategy and Workforce Development" (March 2007).
Or for more information about flexibility in general, please visit our publications page.