10/02/2014 12:06 pm ET Updated Dec 02, 2014

The "Right to Request" Flexibility

The title alone gives pause for debate. Should employees have the "right to request" flexibility from their employers? Right now San Francisco and Vermont give employees the right to request flexible work schedules (with stipulations) but at the Federal level, there is no law that says so, although there is the potential such as these proposed pieces of legislation: Schedules That Work Act (H.R 5159) or the Flexibility for Working Families Act (H.R. 2559) (S. 1248). It looks at this time according to WorldatWork's own legislative tracking page that there is slim chance of either one of them passing - at least anytime soon.

But a law did pass in the UK. It is an update to a law already on the books that had given caregivers and people looking after children the right to request flexibility. This law now covers all employees. Would something like this work for U.S. organizations? Or is it more advantageous to create a culture of flexibility in your own organization that sets that same tone?

As it exists today, many times flexibility begins with the employee making a request for flexibility to accommodate something that is going on in their personal lives. Many times flexibility then potentially grows from there. One fear that some managers have in granting the request is that if they give it to one employee, they will have to give it to everyone. Because of that fear, what may occur is the original flexibility request goes under the radar and is a negotiated "deal" between that employee and their manager. This often comes from the fear that if all employees request it, the manager will not have the capacity to meet their goals (i.e., work will not get done). At this point, flexibility can die on the vine, or continue on a somewhat covert level within the organization.

In actuality, many times it does continue to grow and mature and there are organizations that have successfully created that "culture of flexibility". Several things evolve along the way after that initial negotiated deal, a spectrum so to speak of how flexibility grows and matures into simply a way of doing business that many times goes on seamlessly throughout the organization. WorldatWork put this spectrum to the test in the Survey on Workplace Flexibility anticipating that those organizations with a culture of flexibility actually benefited the most. The benefits that we saw from those organizations that truly felt they fit the criteria for an established flexible culture reaped the biggest rewards in terms of employee satisfaction and engagement as well as a significant effect on turnover.

The continuum of flexibility was graphically shown (see page 27 of survey) with certain criteria that moved flexibility from non-existent to informal, then strategic and finally deeply embedded. Note that in the deeply embedded culture column is this particular criteria -- "employees feel free to request flexible work arrangements as needed". Hmmmm...... Something to ponder.

Don't get me wrong, I am a big proponent of allowing flexibility that makes sense for the organization as well as a means to benefit the employee. However, I wonder if having the "right to request" decided upon by the organization or by a law is the best indicator of creating a culture of flexibility. What's that saying? ----- you get more bees with honey than you do with vinegar. So as we enter into the month of October, which is also National Work and Family Month, perhaps organizations can ponder their own culture of flexibility and determine where they would like to fit on the continuum.