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What Do Managers Really Think about Flexibility?—Issue Brief

by Stephen Sweet, Ph.D. and Jacquelyn B. James, Ph.D.

September 2013—Flexible work options–especially those that provide for variations in the time or place of work–are strategies often suggested to enhance employee effectiveness. And yet, like good jobs in general, access to flexible work options is limited and unevenly allocated.

Even when employers adopt formal policies to provide latitude in scheduling or place of work, managers almost always have final approval. Managers can (and commonly do) provide informal access, ignoring policies that may prohibit use of flexible work options (Kelly & Kalev, 2006). Managers also can (and commonly do) use discretion to restrict or penalize access in both implicit and explicit ways, putting flexible work options that are on the books out of employees’ reach (Barnett, Gareis, Gordon, & Brennan, 2009; Eaton, 2003). Thus there is little doubt that managerial attitudes toward flexible work arrangements contribute to unevenness in implementation and use.

Given managers’ influence on workers’ ability to take advantage of flexible work options, what managers really think about flexibility and how firmly they hold their opinions are two questions worth investigating. To answer these questions, we present descriptive findings from a study conducted in collaboration with a large employer in the finance and insurance super-sector. These findings are drawn from surveys conducted in June 2012 of 1,058 managers employed by the subject of our study: Company A (a pseudonym). One in four managers whom we asked to participate in our survey (26.1 percent) joined the study. Prior to data collection, Company A engaged in a variety of strategies both to expand the use of flexible work options and promote the benefits of doing so. Managers were encouraged to value flexibility and were given numerous supports to improve access to these options in their work units. It is important to understand that the attitudes that we report in this brief will not necessarily map onto perspectives of managers operating in other industries or organizations. Nonetheless, the attitudes that exist in Company A provide a window into what managers think about workplace flexibility.

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