Workplace flexibility: eighty percent of American employees say they want it, nearly half of job seekers rate it as a higher priority than salary, and thousands of companies have embraced it as an efficient way to keep employees happy and boost business productivity. But despite all this, there is still a widespread misconception that workplace flexibility is only appropriate to a certain type of job.
A simple job, the thinking goes, can be accomplished by someone working off-site, or working non-traditional hours, or sharing a job with another part-time employee; but "serious jobs" still require rigid, traditional work schedules and set-ups. This line of thinking is epitomized by the dilemma facing a worker who wrote into The Wall Street Journal's Ask The Juggle this week:
The reader, a working mother, has an opportunity to step into a new job with her current employer that would allow her to work from home one or two days a week. The new job would give her flexibility to spend more time with her two young children....The problem is, the job isn't that exciting, and she is overqualified for it. Taking it also wouldn't help her resume much in any future job search...
It's not just working moms, but employees of all stripes who face this quandary: to take the flexible job or the good job? But it raises a more important question: why is this employee--clearly talented enough to hold a challenging position--only offered flexibility if she takes a worse job? Instead, why can't she and her employer work together to find a way to make the job she has more flexible?
The answer, of course, is that making a challenging job flexible is, well...challenging. But it's not impossible. The pioneering employers who have won Alfred P. Sloan Awards for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility have shown that there are many different routes to workplace flexibility. Innovation in other countries has shown that even doctors, lawyers and business leaders stand to benefit from increased flexibility.
As Sue Shellenbarger said in her thoughtful response to this reader, "most jobs require some sacrifices. Trade-offs like this are what make the juggle such a nonstop challenge. The right answer is different for everyone." Perhaps working form home twice a week isn't possible with this woman's job. But maybe it is possible to shift when the work is done so that a spouse or other family member can be home when this mother is at work. Maybe it's possible to let her share the job with another talented employee. Or maybe this mother and her employee need to come up with a completely new way to match this job with her life.
The point is that every job, no matter how demanding or challenging, can be tweaked to make it more flexible. And, a wide array of research has shown that workers across the spectrum are more efficient when they have flexibility over how, when and where their work gets done.
Perhaps the biggest misconception about workplace flexibility is that it means working less. It doesn't. I have seen many examples of employees who get more work done when given flexibility in when, where and how they do their work. This isn't about decreasing the number of hours someone works or giving them fewer responsibilities. It's about customizing a job so that it fits with a life. Oftentimes this even means the employee works more. Almost always it means that they work better, are more engaged with their job, and less likely to leave the company.
We need to move past this outdated image of a good worker as someone who has no life or family issues distracting them from work. A good worker is someone who figures out how to fit their job with their life and family responsibilities so that they are not distracted from either.
Because of the many benefits it offers to both employees and employers, workplace flexibility is now included in the Department of Labor's definition of a "good job." Every business should make it possible for each employee to sit down with their manager and figure out how to make their job fit with their life. If they take the time to do this, they'll end up with more productive employees and more efficient businesses.
No talented employee should have to answer the question, "do I want a good job or do I want a flexible job?" Instead, each of us should be asking, "how do I make my good job a flexible job?"