THE BLOG
03/15/2013 12:16 pm ET Updated May 15, 2013

Is the Tide Turning Against Flexible Work?

Co-authored by Stephen Sweet, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Sociology at Ithaca College, Author of The Work-Family Interface (2014, Sage)

Recently, employees at two major companies - Yahoo! and Best Buy - learned that they will no longer have as much discretion over where and when to work. Do the actions of these two firms indicate that the tide has turned against flexible work?

Many of our colleagues (ourselves included) present cases for flexible work, arguing that these arrangements are well-aligned with the global, 24/7 business world and offer a needed resource to working families. "Good flexibilities" offer supervisors and employees opportunities to move work (either in time or place) or reduce work to match demands of life on and off the job. Three decades of research makes clear that these types of flexibilities can support productivity and create more harmony between work and family commitments.

It is important to understand that workplace flexibility is more than working from home. Comprehensive flexibility creates opportunities to synchronize work and life. Working from home is only one strategy among a wide variety of flexible options that can be explored and implemented. Consider, for example, how a compressed work week or a variable schedule can be used in lieu of work-at-home arrangements.

A business case for flexibility exists, and studies (including notable ones of Best Buy) document benefits such as decreased absenteeism, lower turnover, and enhanced employee satisfaction. Ignoring these positive outcomes makes the elimination of flexible work options particularly troubling. Nevertheless, very few studies have crossed over all of the stepping stones, linking these types of positive outcomes with business-relevant metrics, such as sales performance, cost savings, and productivity. The jury is still out on the extent to which it is possible to measure the overall positive return on investment for an organization; what is clear, however, is that the work and home lives of individual employees can benefit in ways that matter to employers.

Corporate "pull back" from workplace flexibility is even more worrisome because there are indicators that availability has often been overestimated. Nearly all employers have flex options on the books, but the typical workplace does not operate like Yahoo! or Best Buy did. Relatively few employers make a large variety of flex options widely available to their workforces. And when flexibility is offered, most commonly it is the option to move work around. Far less often do workers have options to reduce the volume of labor or to take career time-outs. The reality is that American workplaces continue to be remarkably inflexible for most workers, so researchers have yet to document the full extent of what flexibility has to offer.

Ironically, when flex options are available, they tend to be allocated to the more advantaged members of the labor force (including men and professionals). But even among these advantaged members, there is a difference between a flexibility that is on the books versus one that is truly usable. Once the career costs of using flexible work options are included in the calculations, true availability diminishes even further. And not all flexibility is "good flexibility." Employees in the fast food and retail sectors are among those that are most apt to have flexible work arrangements. However, on deeper inquiry it becomes apparent that they often get "bad flexibilities" that are not solution-focused choices made by supervisors and employees together. This results in unpredictable schedules that offer too little (rather than too much) work. Statistical estimates of wide-scale flex availability belie these qualitative observations.

Without doubt, today's workplaces offer more flexible work options than they did in the 1970s and prior, but the trajectory of progress may have plateaued. Some industries, most notably those operating in the manufacturing sector, are still remarkably inflexible in their talent management practices. By comparing two national studies of employers, we found that the average company in 2006 offered 4 flexible options to most or all of their employees. In 2009, this had declined to 2 options. And declines happened across different industry sectors.

Despite a darkening horizon suggested by the press coverage of Best Buy and Yahoo!, there are great examples of companies that support local decision-making about flex options and that encourage managers and their employees to consider options that support work objectives. State Street Corporation was recently recognized by the WorldatWork's Alliance for Work-Life Progress for its innovative program of Manager Initiated Flex. This program encourages managers to initiate conversations about whether work schedules, work hours, and the location of work can better assist not just employees, but State Street as well. The underlying principle of this program is that business problems - including work schedules - are best solved by talking about them. This illustrates a simple, direct, and effective approach to a complex issue.

Most employers expand flexibility because they believe that it will bring positive returns. The reality is that few employers are positioned to gather the data on what can be achieved, or what is achievable over the long term. If the bottom line moves upward for Yahoo! and Best Buy, do not be too quick to conclude that too much flexibility was at fault for their current problems, or that the removal of flexibility was the solution.

If the wave of enthusiasm for flexibility is subsiding, the tide of changing employee needs and expectations is not retreating. Companies are well advised to gauge the waters before concluding that they have become too flexible or are not flexible enough.