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But What About Me? The Workplace Flexibility Gap

01/12/2011 03:27 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

The Huffington Post recently named the growth of workplace flexibility at Fortune 500 companies as one of the top stories of the last decade. That's no surprise if you look at corporate data. A recent survey of CEOs found that the #1 investment challenge facing business in the next decade is "obtaining human capital and optimizing human capital investments," and that the #1 driver for attracting and keeping this talent is "providing flexibility to balance life and work."

Firms of all sizes now promote creative options like telecommuting, paid leave and career breaks. It seems every day we read about a new company or industry that embraces workplace flexibility. This isn't because these companies are run by nice people. It's because study after study has shown that giving employees flexibility in where, when and how they work is good for a business's bottom line.

Yet whenever we talk about workplace flexibility, the majority of American employees still ask, but what about me?

Whenever there is a story in the papers about workplace flexibility, most people read it and say, "that sounds great -- but how come I don't have it?" This weekend The New York Times looked at the growth of workplace flexibility in the notoriously grueling accounting industry. The thoughtful and well-researched article by Steven Greenhouse cites many real-world examples of accounting firms that have come to realize it helps -- not hurts -- the company's productivity levels to give employees options like part-time careers, unpaid summers off, or the ability to plateau or dial down their career for a finite period, without jeopardy or stigma. Yet many of the comments on The New York Times Web site read like this:

"This has got to be an April Fools joke. There is no flexibility at big 4 accounting firms. They advertise flexibility, they don't practice it.... When I worked at a big 4 accounting firm, you'd get dirty looks if you were to dare leave the office before 6pm. That is not flexibility"

"I can tell you, it's not really like this. Many audit teams have mandatory 60+ hour weeks plus weekends. And if you're productive and get your work done quickly, they will reward you with someone else's work."

"I know they talk the talk but I agree with a couple of other posters here, it's just that, talk, at least for the vast majority of employees. I worked at a Big Four for 7.5 years (until 2005, still pretty recent) and it was all about face time and having your posterior in the chair. They certainly like to make examples of some people who get those flex benefits, etc. without repercussions, but the reality for the rank and file is quite different."


There is apparently a big flexibility gap this industry, with a lot of people saying "hey, why not me? Where's my flex?" But the gap is not limited to the accounting industry. Recent research shows that while 80 percent of workers want flexibility, only about a third have it. So if employees want flexibility and employers know that it works, then where is this flexibility gap and resulting unevenness coming from?

In large part it is coming from the fact that firms are not putting their money where their mouth is. We know that a major barrier to implementing flexibility stems from the behaviors of middle managers or supervisors who may not be aware of flexibility policies, or may feel that they are stretched thin and cannot see how to provide flexibility without it being a zero sum game. Educating and training supervisors on how to implement flexibility is important. But if corporate efforts with diversity are any guide, training will go only so far. What most effectively brings about change is accountability: when managers and supervisors are held accountable for results.

If managers are held accountable during their annual reviews for how well and how fairly they implement flexibility to achieve business ends, we will then see unevenness dissipating and the flexibility gap closing. Companies that want to say they are truly walking the walk on workplace flexibility (and reap the business benefits) can't just offer flexibility to some workers -- they need to set up a system of accountability so that everyone is able to find some flexibility.