A Little Flex Goes a Long Way

04/16/2013 10:36 am ET | Updated Jun 16, 2013

"Why Women Still Can't Have it all," "Yahoo Orders Home Workers Back to the Office," "Sheryl Sandberg, Marisa Meyer and the Great Baby Debate." If you read the headlines about workplace flexibility -- of which there have been many lately -- you might be left with the impression that there are hard-edged battle lines drawn on the subject: telecommuters, part-timers, and advocates for parental leave on one side; traditional in-office employees and their managers all the way on the other. You are either for workplace flexibility or you are against it.

But research shows the truth of the matter is much more subtle, and that most of us aren't so far apart in terms of what we want from our jobs. In fact, a more accurate reading of how people really feel can be found in between the articles. In a recent full-page ad for that appeared in The New York Times, a middle-age man sits behind his desk, whistle around his neck, fantasizing about coaching youth sports but clearly not going anywhere. The tagline reads "Flexible Hours -- small change that makes a big difference in your life." It was one of several similar ads I noticed in the paper, all on just one day. Each one sought to tap into what at least advertisers have come to realize is the thing employees really want -- the flexibility to make small changes in how we work.

Given the changing demands of the workforce -- most families made of up two parents, each working full time; an aging population resulting in more people working longer and more people with elder care responsibilities; a sagging economy forcing young people to juggle school and full-time work -- traditional job schedules no longer fit with our lives. More and more people need changes like flexible start times and compressed workweeks. In a 2010 study of "What Mothers Want" led by Jocelyn Elise Crowley of Rutgers University, the vast majority of mothers surveyed -- over three-quarters -- rated flexible start/end times as very important to them in thinking about an ideal job -- more so than any other type of flexibility.

Most of us are not asking for sabbaticals, part-time positions, or an end to in-office meetings. We are asking for small things, like starting work at 8:30 instead of 8 so that we can drop our kids off at school beforehand. And it's not just moms. A grandfather can commit to staying in the workforce longer if he knows he'll be able to schedule his shifts around family and health commitments. A twenty-something can balance work and school demands with less stress if she's given the option to compress a workweek into four days and take classes on the fifth.

Numerous studies have shown that small changes like this are cost-neutral and can have a big impact when it comes to worker productivity, engagement and fulfillment. They can even help you sleep better. Harvard University research led by neuroscientist Orefu Boxton and epidemiologist Lisa Berkman has found that employees with managers who allow flexible start times actually sleep better and more, and have better health indicators, than those who do not.

Not only that, but employees don't even need to use flexibility options to benefit from them -- just knowing they have the option of flexibility in case of an emergency or change in family needs goes a long way to making them feel more comfortable. A parent can sleep better at night knowing that if the school bus is 15 minutes late on a snowy morning, they don't have to leave their five-year-old alone on a corner and can get into work a bit later. This flexibility to work things out time-wise, without putting their job in jeopardy is an option that too many people, especially low-wage hourly workers, simply don't have.

It's easy to say that if you offer flexibility, people will take advantage of it, but the research shows that is simply not the case. A recent study by Families and Work Institute of employees in industrial positions found that of those with short-notice schedule flexibility, 70 percent used it only once a month or less.

And it's not difficult for most employers to offer these things. Innovative solutions like employee-designed schedules, employee-managed trade shifts, and team-based compressed workweeks are easy and low-cost solutions for companies to implement.

At this moment in time, flexibility seems to be talked about everywhere. People are tired of having no solution to the problems of handling their work and life demands, and they are ready to talk about the small changes that they really want and need. But whenever this topic comes up, people tend to immediately go to the extremes -- blaming employers for asking too much, or suspecting employees just want an excuse to slack off. But the reality is that what most hardworking people want and need is just the freedom to make small changes.