Flex work rhetoric vs. reality: How big is the gap?


It’s hard to be against flexible work arrangements like modified schedules and remote working. Who wants to make a working mother’s life more stressful or make the un-PC suggestion that employees with home responsibilities are less valued?

But despite a lot of talk in support of new ways of working to help knowledge workers keep their sanity and their families intact, there’s plenty of evidence that some managers are merely paying lip service to the idea.

Recently, HR consultancy WorldatWork decided to take a closer look at managers’ true attitudes towards flexible working, polling 2,312 employees in six countries (Brazil, China, India, Germany, the United Kingdom and the United States) in late 2010. The results out now show a chasm between rhetoric and reality when it comes to flexible working:

While, 80 percent of respondents claimed to support family-friendly workplaces and arrangements such as remote work, more often than not their behavior didn’t match their beliefs:

  • More than half the surveyed managers think the ideal employee is one that is available to meet business needs regardless of business hours
  • 40 percent believe the most productive employees are those without a lot of personal commitments
  • Nearly one in three think that employees who use flexible work arrangements will not advance very far in their organization

“The good news is that 80 percent of employers around the globe avow support for family-friendly workplaces,” said Kathie Lingle, executive director of WorldatWork’s Alliance for Work-Life Progress. “The bad news is they are simultaneously penalizing those who actively strive to integrate work with their lives.”

The WSJ’s The Juggle blog points out that the WorldatWork findings are consistent with other earlier surveys, including one done by Bain & Co last year that found while flex work programs were widely available, they were very little used.

This gap between what management says and what it does can can result in employees who “go underground, resorting to ‘stealth maneuvers’ for managing their personal responsibilities,” according to Lingle. On the flip side, actually implementing flexible working is tied to lower turnover, among other benefits.

Does flex work rhetoric match reality at your employer?

Image courtesy of Flickr user Philo Nordlund, CC 2.0.


Cali Yost

ROWE is an interesting concept, but not every organization has to undertake a major cultural overhaul to close the gap. I’ve outlined the steps from my twenty years of experience developing and implementing flexibility strategies in organizations in the following post: Three Steps to Make Work+Life Flexibility Really Succeed for Your Business and People http://worklifefit.com/blog/2011/09/3-steps-to-make-worklife-flexibility-really-succeed-for-your-business-and-your-people/

Cali Williams Yost
CEO Flex+Strategy Group

Douglas Karr

This is because it’s a cultural issue, not an hours issue. I’d recommend readers read up on ROWE – Results Only Work Environment where managers can learn to focus on results instead of hours.

Mark Fiske

I see flex work as a retention mechanism that – while it may have tradeoffs in short term productivity – yields dividends as long-term institutional knowledge prevents recurrence of mistakes and ensures intelligent new project planning/execution.

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