Nearly all employers offer some type of workplace-flexibility program, but few train employees on how to successfully utilize such initiatives or managers on how to successfully work with employees who have flexible schedules. Too often, workers fear asking for flexibility, experts say.
By David Shadovitz
Workplace flexibility is alive and well in many companies these days, at least in some form. But don't be surprised if it doesn't show up in the company handbook.
In a recent study of 537 HR professionals at U.S. employers by WorldatWork, nearly all of the respondents (98 percent) said they offer at least one workplace-flexibility program. But six of 10 described their initiatives as being informal, meaning there were no written policies or forms.
"When it comes to workplace flexibility programs, culture trumps policy," says Rose Stanley, a practice leader for the Scottsdale, Ariz., association of HR, benefits and compensation professionals.
Not surprisingly, Stanley adds, the survey found this is especially true at smaller organizations.
"When you see a lot of policies," she says, "it's typically at larger organizations that want to be more equitable," she says. "In smaller organizations, everyone already knows what everyone is doing."
Experts agree that the lack of formal programs could be viewed as proof that flexibility is being embedded in the corporate culture, but also warn that there are dangers inherent in being too informal.
"Not having formal policies may be a sign that companies are very advanced in the area of workplace flexibility," says Kathleen Christensen, director of the Workplace, Work Force and Working Families program at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation in New York. "But it could also be a sign that in [some companies] private deals are being cut [and a] culture of equity and transparency may be lacking.
In Christensen's opinion, whether or not workplace flexibility is formal or informal is less of an issue than the "jeopardy -- that employees feel they won't be taken as seriously as someone else who does not take advantage of flexibility."
Christensen says flexibility needs to be a cornerstone of the business. "As long as it's seen as an add-on or an accommodation, then it's never going to be fully integrated into the day-to-day operations," she says.
The WorldatWork study found flexibility takes many forms, with part-time schedules and flextime the most common (both cited by 84 percent of the respondents), followed by telework (83 percent).
Liz Watson, legislative counsel for Workplace Flexibility 2010 at Georgetown Law School in Washington, agrees employers need to make it clear that employees can ask for flexibility without fear of retribution.
While this applies to all employees, she adds, it's especially important for those at lower levels of the organization.
"They need to know [flexibility] is something they can request," Watson says.
In light of this, experts say, training employees -- on how to successfully utilize workplace-flexibility programs -- and managers -- on how to successfully work with employees who have flexible schedules -- is crucial.
The WorldatWork study, however, found only a small percentage of the companies provided such training to employees (17 percent) or managers (21 percent).
If the goal is to embed workplace flexibility into the culture, training is key, according to Watson. But even among companies surveyed that describe themselves as having such as a culture, the percentages are small.
Only 9 percent of organizations with a "developing culture" train employees on workplace flexibility, compared to 32 percent of organizations with an "established culture."
Meanwhile, 12 percent of employers with a "developing culture" train managers, compared to 37 percent of organizations with an "established culture."
On a somewhat more positive note, the study found a majority of companies (56 percent) incorporate workforce flexibility into their business-continuity plans.
Stanley points out that the federal government apparently recognized the need when it included emergency readiness as part of the Telework Enhancement Act of 2010, which was signed into law in December. It requires government agencies to establish formal telework policies and procedures.
"It's nice to see many private employers understand that it needs to be part of their plans as well," she says.