What does workplace flexibility mean in 2017?
The Office Space-esque version of the nine-to-five is a construct of the past. No longer do cubicle-confined worker bees time their commutes to arrive at 9 a.m. on the dot; even donning a suit and tie in the workplace is becoming more and more passé. And with 2017 looming, top talent is more selective than ever before when it comes to prioritizing workplace flexibility.
This isn't to say that today's workforce is lazy, or even that they're working fewer hours. In fact, a Gallup poll from 2014 found that the average "40-hour" workweek is actually more like 47 hours. Globalization, increased connectivity and the advent of tools like Slack not only keep employees in contact — they keep them on the clock. This is where flexibility comes into play: employees may be more willing to accept the new norm of "work-life integration" if the perks are enticing enough. And more than a couple smart employers are rising to the challenge.
WFH = the new norm
More and more employers are jumping on the remote work bandwagon: Even if it's just giving employees the flexibility to work from home one day a week or several weeks out of the year. In fact, an overwhelming majority of the professionals — on both the employee and the HR side — surveyed for this article mentioned working remotely as not just a perk, but the new normal.
"Millennials in particular subscribe to the belief that flexible work schedules make you happier," says Emily Moyer, the head of admissions for Remote Year, a startup that combines work and travel for professionals who are able to do their jobs while on the go. "So they're choosing lifestyles that lead to greater balance, working with companies whose values align with their own. They want to live a life of purpose."
Millennials in particular subscribe to the belief that flexible work schedules make you happier; they're choosing lives that lead to greater balance.
ADP's 2016 Employee Engagement Study confirmed this sentiment: Millennials do tend to rank flexibility as a significant factor when weighing employment priorities. Though compensation and benefits still rank highly among the top drivers of employee engagement, flexibility consistently comes in third place.
A company that's willing to allow its employees even temporary sabbaticals to pursue activities that may be complementary – though not always directly intertwined with – their day jobs is also more likely to keep burnout at bay.
"People want to feel like they can be their authentic selves in the workplace. Part of having a work culture that supports that means flexibility and transparency, because that is how top talent will be successful," says Eileen Carey, CEO of Glassbreakers, a mentorship program for women. "At Glassbreakers, for example, as long as people are communicating effectively, are transparent about their time management and thriving in their role, we like to empower people to work from wherever they are most productive."
Benefits and perks
Flexibility can also extend beyond simply the number of hours employees are expected to show face-time. The office environment plays an important role, too.
More and more companies are adopting casual dress codes, pet-friendly office policies and summer Fridays in order to attract and retain talent. Quirkier but useful benefits such as offering employees pet insurance, unlimited vacation days or dedicated nursing rooms for new mothers may also sway workers when they're weighing potential job opportunities. Maternity and paternity leave policies, too, have increasingly earned time in the spotlight, as studies show that the U.S. falls short of many global standards for working parents.
From the employer perspective – particularly for more established companies hoping to stay competitive in the talent war — introducing flexible policies should be executed with tact.
"Sweeping statements must be translated to the everyday realities facing middle managers and team leaders."
"It's not enough to have the CEO say that flexible schedules are available to everyone," says Joanne Cleaver, president of Wilson-Taylor Associates, Inc., a company that designs and manages research to help companies retain women. "Sweeping statements must be translated to the everyday realities facing middle managers and team leaders. They're the ones who have to accommodate flexible schedules while still meeting deadlines — and while delivering for clients," she adds.
The key, says Cleaver, is in training managers to use flexibility as a tool for team productivity, not as a concession allowed occasionally, or as a reward for employee performance. "When staff think that flexible schedules are allowed arbitrarily, or on a case-by-case basis, they wonder why flexibility is allowed for some situations but not for others," she says. "That's when favoritism creeps in, staff become cynical and flexibility becomes counterproductive in workplace culture."
It still comes down to industry
Of course, all this is relative. Traditionally cutthroat fields like investment banking institutions or old-school law firms are slower to adopt the most extreme flexible workplace perks. (It's doubtful, for example, that a Big Four accounting firm will follow the lead of some European companies and institute a six-hour workday anytime soon.)
That said, even established corporate entities may do well to work to mitigate their 100-hour-a-week, slave-to-the-desk reputations — or risk potentially alienating overworked and increasingly disillusioned employees. If the trends outlined above continue, it's not unforeseeable that future workers will one day forego attractive salaries to pursue more flexible work at companies willing to offer leniency.
"Companies that want to attract and keep the best talent have to unlearn the workplace of the past, where employees were expected to be at their desks from nine to five, job descriptions stayed within hard and clearly defined lines, and personal days were limited," says David Kalt, the founder and CEO of Reverb.com, an online marketplace for buying and selling music gear.
"Today's employees — at least those that you want to keep around for the long haul — have a firm grasp on how, where and when they are most productive. As an employer, it's your job to understand that each employee is different and to create an environment where they feel empowered to do their best work. There's no cookie-cutter approach — what works for your creative or tech department might not make business sense for a customer service team that needs to be available within certain parameters — but today's employees do expect companies to make an effort to understand and nurture their personal and professional needs."
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