Getting workplace flexibility to work

Study finds tools, training key to overcoming management concerns

By Claudine Kapel

Flexible work arrangements took a hit last year when two major employers dropped their programs. But new research suggests such programs can work — and deliver value — if organizations lay the proper groundwork for success.

“When Yahoo and Best Buy abandoned their flexible work initiatives last year and called employees back into the office, they cited their need to improve team performance – particularly communication and collaboration,” notes the National Workplace Flexibility Study.

But the study, conducted by research partners Life Meets Work Inc., Boston College for Work & Family, and the Career/Life Alliance Services, Inc., found “team functioning and performance can actually improve when teams work flexibly.”

Working with three test organizations, the researchers introduced a series of manager activities related to workplace flexibility, including focus groups, training, a planning tool used to engage employees in the development of flexible work options, and follow-up support activities over a three-month period. Manager and employee attitudes were measured before and after the interventions.

Key findings from the study include:

  • Some 98 per cent of managers who participated in the training and used the planning tool reported no negative impact of workplace flexibility on their business. About 55 per cent of the managers who applied the planning tool reported improvement in team communication, while 53 per cent reported improved team interactions.
  • By the end of the study, managers felt better equipped to lead flexible teams and more confident that flexible work arrangements could work for their group. For example, by the study’s conclusion, 96 per cent of participating managers reported understanding how to respond to flexible work requests from employees – up from 78 per cent.
  • Managers’ concerns about flexible work decreased. For example, concerns that flexible work arrangements could be used inappropriately declined by 23 per cent.

By the end of the study, employees also felt more comfortable requesting flexibility, even though the participating organizations’ policies did not change during the course of the study.

The researchers concluded the employee shifts were due to “increased manager awareness and comfort in dealing with flexibility issues” combined with employee involvement in the development of “flex team blueprints,” which encouraged managers to discuss workplace flexibility with their teams.

“We know that managers have a lot of concerns about workplace flexibility,” Kathy Kacher of Career/Life Alliance Services noted in a release. “They worry about availability, fairness, workload, and performance issues.”

The study shows “with the right tools, those fears can be overcome. In almost every case, managers reported no negative impact on the business after they built a plan with their employees for how they’d work together in a flexible environment,” Kacher added.

While the study highlights some key success factors for flexible work arrangements, the research findings have broader, more universal, themes as well. What can support workplace flexibility can add value in a lot of other contexts as well.

When we take a step back, we will likely find that a lot of organizational change efforts can be enhanced by:

  • Engaging managers in the change process and providing them with tools and training so they understand how to successfully implement and manage the change.
  • Fostering communication and collaboration so there is a broad understanding of a program or change and what it means for managers and employees.
  • Involving employees so they can provide input and have their questions and concerns addressed.

Few programs, including flexible work arrangements, will deliver sustained results or value if they don’t become part of an organization’s fabric. Manager engagement is especially key if you want to go beyond just having a policy to having a new way of doing business.

Claudine Kapel

Claudine Kapel is principal of Kapel and Associates Inc., a human resources consulting firm specializing in compensation design, performance management, and employee communications. Claudine is also the co-author of The HR Manager’s Guide to Total Rewards and Straight Talk on Managing Human Resources.
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