11/07/2011 02:20 pm ET | Updated Jan 07, 2012

Can the Time Famine Felt by American Employees be Reduced?

By Ellen Galinsky and Ken Matos

Americans feel starved for time. According to a new report from the Families and Work Institute (FWI) and the Society for Human Resources Management (SHRM), Workplace Flexibility in the United States: A Status Report, women's responsibilities at work and men's responsibilities at home have increased, resulting in high feelings of work family conflict among both men and women employees.

Managing a paid job, as well as personal and family responsibilities, has resulted in a "time famine" and appears to impact a wide array of employees. The data from this and other FWI reports for the Department of Labor show that a two-thirds to three-quarters majority of wage and salary employees feel they do not have enough time to be with their children, their spouses/partners, and to spend on themselves.

In response to these and other historical changes, the White House held a Forum on Workplace Flexibility on March 31, 2010, launching a national conversation on workplace flexibility as an important way to help employees by reducing the time famine and help employers by improving business results. And in fact, data from the Families and Work Institute's ongoing nationally representative study of the U.S. workforce shared at the White House Forum showed that flexibility can benefit both employees and employers.

Higher levels of overall workplace flexibility are associated with more people indicating that they have enough time for family and themselves. In addition, higher levels of flexibility are also associated positive business results like higher employee job satisfaction and engagement and a lower likelihood of searching for a new job.

To maintain the momentum of this historic event, the U.S. Department of Labor's Women's Bureau hosted the National Dialogue on Workplace Flexibility, a series of ten forums around the country. One of the purposes of these Forums was to go beyond the averages--to look at flexibility among different groups of employees like low-wage employees or those who work for small businesses as well as among different sectors of the economy, like the health service sector, manufacturing, and retail.

FWI participated in these forums both by serving as keynoters and subject matter experts and by preparing reports focused on the employee group or employment sector that was the Forum topic.

The report that FWI and SHRM have just released summarizes the results of all of these reports, One of our important findings is that some of the common assumptions and concerns are not supported by data.

For example, some employers may worry that allowing employees to work flexibly will create a lax work environment. On the contrary, FWI's research shows that employees who are offered the flexibility to adjust their work schedules on short-notice, rarely do so - 70% of employees with this option use it once a month or less. Similarly, employers might think that flexibility is expensive to implement, especially for smaller companies, or that there won't be enough staff to work properly. However, small businesses are not more likely than large companies to cite costs as a major obstacle to implementing flexibility and only a very small percentage of small companies report too few employees as an obstacle. While it is true that larger organizations are more likely to report having formal flexibility policies, small businesses are not without flexibility options. According to the National Study of the Changing Workforce, employees at small businesses are more likely to report having access to certain forms of flexibility the smaller the organization in which they work. This surprising finding is likely a result of managers and coworkers finding ways to provide needed flexibility through informal channels, even if formal flexibility policies are not available.

Many employers don't see why they should offer flexibility to hourly employees or manual laborers. Our data show that flexibility provides real benefits to employers of low-wage employees, such as reduced likelihood of seeking a new job and improved employee engagement. Considering the generally high turnover rates and customer contact in many low-wage jobs, especially in the Hospitality, Restaurant, and Tourism Industry and in the Retail Industry, these outcomes are benefits for both the employer and the employees. Flexibility is also more effective in reducing home interference with work among low-wage employees than among higher-wage employees, which can make flexibility a good way to reduce absenteeism among low-wage employees.

Our data show that a "culture of flexibility" is as, if not more, important than simply having access to flexibility options. Though a majority of employees have workplaces that officially support the use of flexibility, the percentage of both male and female employees who believe that using flexibility could jeopardize their careers remains sizable across the various organizational and employee groups examined in our report (27%-49%).

Regardless, many employees (89%-97%) agree that their immediate supervisors are responsive to their needs when they have personal or family issues to take care of on work time. So it is the culture at large that seems to be a major obstacle. This is so important because sadly, the culture of flexibility appears to be stagnating, as there has been little growth in employees' confidence that using flexibility options will not be damaging to their careers. Flexibility is only effective when employees have confidence they are creating a long-term alignment between work and personal/family life, not trading future career opportunities for a few hours of sick leave. Employers who have not yet fully embraced flexibility should question if they are still clinging to outdated beliefs about flexibility.

And that is the next frontier that those who want to make work "work" better for employer and employees must tackle. The White House and Department of Labor Women's Bureau have moved conversations about flexibility from private conversations to public ones. It is clear that this dialogue now needs to move to workplaces across the country.

If you are interested in contributing to the dialogue please join me and other leaders in the field in Washington, DC this week for the first Work-Life Focus Conference. For more information click here.