The Work-Life Movement
The contemporary American workplace is evolving far from its 20th century roots, during which the ideal worker was characterized as someone unfailingly committed and available to his job, and who did not allow personal or family responsibilities to interfere with his job performance. Today, this breadwinner-caretaker model has been replaced, as women and men are now represented equally in the workplace, as dual-earner couples become the norm, and as the workforce ages and becomes more culturally diverse. Research shows that employees are working longer hours than ever before and are increasingly strained as their role demands become more intense and multi-faceted. Implementing flexible work options that allow workers to work effectively but creatively as they juggle myriad responsibilities has become a central feature of the proactive 21st century workplace. The list includes teleworking, paid family leave, child and elder care assistance, part-time options, full-time modified duties, sick banks, shift bidding, phased retirement, compressed work weeks, job sharing, and many others.
There are currently many national initiatives aimed at educating employers and the public about the need to be more caring and responsive to these conditions. For example, both houses of Congress have passed bills aimed at enforcing federal telework (working remotely) mandates, and the current administration’s proposed 2011 budget requires a 50% increase in teleworking for federal employees (Lister & Harnish, 2010b). In March 2010, the White House brought national attention to this issue by sponsoring a Conference on Workplace Flexibility, and many federal initiatives are in place and being developed in recognition of the vital importance of these strategies to the modern workplace.
Over the past decade, colleges and universities across the country have begun to catch up to the corporate sector in their recognition that our changing demographics and the changing ways we work and study require changes in workplace policies and practices. In order to maintain a competitive edge in recruitment, retention, and engagement, of faculty, staff, and students, higher education is making strides toward providing flexibility options, child and elder care services, paid leave, and other work-life balance options. The College and University Work/Family Association has been a leader in providing work-life information and services specifically to the higher education community.
The World at Work report, “Workplace Flexibility: Innovation in Action” (2008), notes that the workplace flexibility challenges in higher education differ from other workplace settings in that higher education institutions have to accommodate widely differing positions, including faculty – tenured, on a tenure track, or not on a tenure track – as well as a wide variety of staff positions. Because of the nature of faculty work, they generally have greater control over when and where their work is accomplished, and thus have greater flexibility than many staff positions. When asked what flexibility options were of most value to faculty, the option of having dedicated time to focus on research with no teaching obligations was of high value for associate (65%) and full (73%) women professors (World at Work, 2008). This option was also the most highly valued among faculty in general (55%) as opposed to flex-time and part-time options. Among staff members, the most valued flexible work option (59%) was the flexibility in one’s schedule to allow for taking courses. For women staff members in higher education, the most valued flexible work option (63%) was flex time or flexible hours. (World at Work, 2008)
Many educational institutions have begun to implement innovative flexible work options. According to the American Association of University Professors, the “practices reported to have the greatest potential benefit to faculty included stopping of the tenure clock, modified duties, paid maternity leave, paid dependent-care leave, and the existence of units or personnel dedicated to work-family issues” (World at Work, 2008, p. 13). Another example of a flexible work option is Ohio State University’s policy of “providing 100 percent compensation for up to two quarters of faculty professional leave” (p. 38). After the University of Washington implemented a program called “Parental Teaching Release for Parent/Child Bonding,” faculty taking part in the program reported higher satisfaction with the flexibility available. The University of Washington also pays for replacement instruction for faculty members taking leave. Other examples of work-life options at universities include tenure-clock flexibility, making funds available for faculty to hire post-docs when the faculty member is on leave, dissemination of best practices of family friendly accommodations to all system schools in a state, and offering a career database that allows for cost-benefit analysis of the flexible options offered to faculty. (World at Work, 2008).
The benefits of providing workplace flexibility have by now been well documented and are bi-directional. We know that workplaces that foster flexibility and an atmosphere of trust, respect, and responsiveness to workers’ needs are also characterized by several positive outcomes to both employee and organization, including increased organizational citizenship behaviors, worker satisfaction, commitment, productivity, retention and engagement, increased physical and mental health, and reduced absenteeism, stress, and attrition. (Kossek & Hammer, 2008; Pitt-Catsouphes & Matz-Costa, 2008).
Many companies today are reporting the effectiveness on recruitment offering flexible work arrangements is having (Corporate Voices for Working Families, 2005). According to the World at Work report (2008), “95 percent of employees in the United States say that availability of flexible work arrangements is a critical factor in taking a job” (p. 31). As well, employees working in an organization with high flexibility were more likely to remain with their employers than those in organizations with lower levels of flexibility, and reported higher levels of job satisfaction. According to the Sloan Center Age & Generations Study, for all age groups of employees studied, a majority “reported that having access to flexible work options contributes to their overall quality of life ‘to a great extent’” (Pitt-Catsouphes, Matz-Costa, & Besen, 2009, p. 2).
While the effects of workplace flexibility are clear amongst higher wage workers, “flexibility has powerful impacts on lower wage workers in terms of engagement, turnover, and financial results” (Corporate Voices for Working Families, 2006, p. 15). When lower wage workers were offered flexible work options, the results included higher retention, higher profits, lower rates of absenteeism, and increased productivity. While different strategies may be required for different categories of employees, creative solutions can be found for everyone.
While the business case for providing a flexible workplace has been convincingly made, many institutions have been slow to recognize this important relationship, or recognize it but are still reluctant to introduce flexibility initiatives. A National Study of Employers survey found that cost was cited as the number one obstacle for implementing flexible work options (46% of respondents). However, research also indicates that administrators agree overwhelmingly that flexible work strategies have a positive effect on helping organizations meet business objectives (Corporate Voices, 2007). An expanding body of research provides solid evidence that the return on investments in flexible work options is high, in terms of productivity, engagement, loyalty, retention, and job satisfaction. It is estimated, for example, that allowing employees to telework, or work remotely (also called workshifting) half time could save employers over $10,000 per employee per year as a result of increased productivity, reduced facility costs, lowered absenteeism, and reduced turnover (Lister & Harnish, 2010b).
In addition, there are many, many creative solutions to provide employees the flexibility they need that require few or no additional resources.
Fear of Abuse
A regularly cited reason for not implementing flexible work options is the fear that employees will take advantage of the flexibility offered. Lister and Harnish (2010a) note that “management styles that were born in the days of sweatshops and typing pools are still pervasive in business today.” However, this attitude reflects a traditional top-down, control-oriented management model, one whose values contradict workplace flexibility and a corresponding ethic that includes trust, worker independence, and creative, agile solutions. Regardless of workplace policies, there will always be some abuse by some employees. Using management strategies that cater to this minority, or the “lowest common denominator,” does not serve an organization or its employees well. Effective management is a better strategy. Indeed, it is found repeatedly today that employees with more flexibility options are more willing to work harder than is required, are more loyal, and are more committed to their employer (Families & Work Institute, 2002).
Loss of Productivity & Absenteeism
Supervisors sometimes assume that offering flexibility results in employees not working as hard, thus decreasing organizational productivity. In fact, the opposite has been found time and again: flexbility increases productivity. A Center for Work & Family study (2000) found that 87% of employees and 70% of managers reported that flexible work arrangements had a positive or very positive impact on productivity. Best Buy’s flexible “results only” work program has netted an average productivity increase of 35% and Dow Chemical estimates a 32.5% productivity increase in its teleworkers (Lister & Harnish, 2010b). It has been found that even with a small amount of flexibility, employees have higher levels of engagement, stronger commitment to their jobs, greater job satisfaction, and lower stress levels (Corporate Voices for Working Families, 2005). In fact, a study of over 1,300 hourly workers across 5 companies found that employee engagement was 55% higher for those employees who have flexibility options (World at Work, 2009).
Workers in organizations without the flexibility to “presenteeism,” has become a far worse culprit in loss of productivity than absenteeism, costing US employers between $150 to $250 billion annually (Schaeffer, 2007). In fact, it is estimated that 78% of employees who call in sick really are not. Instead, they do so because of family needs, personal reasons, or stress.
Concerns About Equity and Employee Resentment
Another reason employers may be reluctant to introduce flexibility initiatives is the difficulty in offering the same accommodations to all employees. Certainly in higher education, many different categories of employees exist who perform their work in different ways and under different parameters. However, “flexibility fit” is the important factor: while what works for one employee might not work for another, alternative solutions can be found that help all employees balance their work and personal lives. Offering an array of options is only valuable if those options fit the needs of employees (Pitt-Catsouphes, Matz-Costa, & Besen, 2009). What is important is that the accomdation process be same, even though the choices offered and outcomes may vary.
If anything, offering flexible work options that fit the needs of different employees serves the goals of equity, rather than the reverse. Women workers, who still shoulder the majority of household and caretaking responsibilities, experience much greater levels of stress, burnout, and slower career trajectories due to these compounded demands. Especially in arenas where they are underrepresented, such as the science and engineering disciplines, women’s path up the career ladder is easily sabotaged by unrealistic expectations to do it all (Valian, 1998; Williams, 2000). As well, lower wage workers are much more likely to be restricted in their ability to have some control over their work time, due to the nature of many of their jobs, accompanied by a prevailing attitude among managers about maintaining control over work processes and schedules (Corporate Voices for Working Families, 2006).
Lack of Supervisory Support
Maintaining a traditional organizational culture and resistance to change
on the part of supervisors and organizations presents perhaps the most challenging obstacle to promoting a flexible workplace. Even where policies may exist, in many workplaces “there is a distinct disconnect between policy and practices, what is known as “the implementation gap”. Much has been written concerning implementation barriers (Center for Work and Family, 2008; Hammer, et al, 2007; Mason, et al, 2004; Ward & Wolf-Wendel, 2004; World at Work, 2008). And, along with managers, employees are also often resistant. Drago and colleagues (Drago, 2007) have written extensively on the “bias avoidance” phenomenon, whereby employees fear negative repercussions from using available leave policies. Indeed, the Families and Work Institute’s 2002 National Study of the Changing Workforce revealed that fully 39% of employees surveyed perceive the use of flexible work options as having a negative impact on their job advancement (Families and Work Institute, 2002).
While it may be challenging, manager resistance, employee skepticism, and cultural resistance to changing the old industrial work model can be overcome. A better understanding of the issues and the strength of the business case for flexibility, supervisory training in best practices, performance-based management strategies, and open, consistent communication between supervisors and employees will go a long way toward overcoming these obstacles.
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