Flexible work options ‘expected’ by jobseekers

They make companies more attractive, employees just as productive, finds survey
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 08/25/2010

Flexible work is definitely on the wish list of many people looking for a job as it follows compensation as the most important factor, according to a recent survey. And 89 per cent of employees think offering a flexible work program makes a company more attractive.

“Second to money was flexible work as a main attractor for people looking for a new job,” said Jeff Lowe, vice-president of enterprise at Telus customer solutions, which surveyed 1,013 people to find almost one-half of respondents work remotely at least a few times a month.

“Amongst workers, the attitude has shifted from one of flex work being a privilege of employment to one of fundamental expectations. Job candidates are much more likely to ask about flex work during the interview process than they were five or 10 years ago,” said Jennifer Perrier-Knox, a senior research analyst at Info-Tech, who participated in a teleconference about the Telus survey. “Previously, it would have been considered a very bold question to ask — maybe asking too much.”

In addition, 67 per cent of Canadians are more loyal to companies that provide the option of flexible work, though only 46 per cent of participants work at a company that offers such a program.

Students at the Richard Ivey School of Business expect to have flex work options available and believe they should be provided by all employers, said Alison Konrad, a professor of organizational behaviour at the business school at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., who was also in the teleconference.

“It’s a fundamental expectation,” she said. “As the new generation of millenials enters the workforce, offering flex options will become even more important to employee recruitment, motivation and retention.”

Millenials have higher self-esteem, less need for approval and expect to work when, where and how they want to, said Konrad. However, they also have a reduced sense of self-responsibility and this might present a challenge for managing a flexible workforce.

“They’re more likely to thrive with lots of regular input and feedback from colleagues and managers. So any workplace flexibility program has to be accompanied by very strong people management skills to be effective with this younger generation,” she said.

On that note, 54 per cent of managers worry about employees participating in non-work-related activities while working remotely, found Telus’ Evaluating Attitudes about Flexible Work. And 70 per cent of workers who work remotely admit to doing just that, by surfing the Internet (45 per cent), performing household chores (41 per cent) or running errands (32 per cent).

And while 71 per cent of managers believe employees effectively complete their assignments when working remotely, 51 per cent say it’s difficult to monitor productivity. But 87 per cent of employees who have worked remotely say they are just as productive, if not more, working out of the office, found the survey.

The myths around productivity come from fear of the unknown, said Peter Day, president of Endo Networks, who participated in the teleconference.

“Many managers fear that their team isn’t being productive if the manager can’t see the productivity, i.e., if the employee isn’t sitting at their desk,” he said.

Endo has adjusted to the newer arrangements by measuring team’s performance through client satisfaction surveys, meeting budget targets and other key objectives, “never by how long the team is observed to be sitting at their desk,” he said.

There’s a big push to have tangible metrics, which are hard to measure when a worker is away, said Knox. Instead of looking at physical attendance, employers need to make a perspective change to look at outputs instead.

There are also concerns about oversight and accountability, and a basic assumption flexible work arrangements will be abused by employees, making it a management problem, said Knox.

“Anything that requires the establishment of policies, procedures, modification of assessment processes or rules for exception handling, it smacks of management and administrative overhead, which usually means more work for the management team,” she said.

Many managers come from a generation where they have been expected to show up for work at nine o’clock and leave at five o’clock every day, so there’s a certain amount of “old fogeyism” or the idea of paying your dues involved, said Knox.

In addition, not all roles are suited for flexible work and establishing who qualifies is not always clearcut, she said. It can be a sensitive task and if it’s handled poorly or not in a transparent way, it can build a lot of resentment among those who are excluded, creating a politically charged atmosphere that a lot of leaders don’t know how to deal with.

Telework case study

Costs go down, engagement goes up

Telus introduced a Work Styles program in 2008 that supports team members in eligible roles to work where it suits them best. In 2009, more than one-half of the employees — or 18,000 — were remote work-enabled and by 2015, Telus’ goal is to have 70 per cent of its workforce flexible work-enabled, with 30 per cent working from home and 40 per cent taking a mobile approach to work.

“We’ve seen a solid investment across three areas, often described as the triple bottom line of flexible work: benefits to employees, benefits to business and benefits to environment,” said Jeff Lowe, vice-president of enterprise at Telus customer solutions, referring to the three “Ps” of flex benefits: People, profit and planet.

“In some areas where we implemented telework, we’ve seen employee engagement or overall satisfaction go up by nine per cent, seen a 20-per-cent increase in productivity of team members, we’ve reduced absenteeism by 60 per cent and reduced turnover by 90 per cent.”

Telus has also seen a 40-per-cent reduction in its real estate footprint and consumption costs and a 27-per-cent reduction in carbon emissions and greenhouse gas emissions from telecommuting employees, said Lowe.

“It’s extremely rare to see an initiative like flexible work that cuts costs while at the same time increases employee satisfaction and helps the environment. That’s what makes flexible work such a compelling topic.”

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