Do employees really want summer flex policies?

Survey finds many workers too busy, stressed to take time off — which is why employers should keep in mind labour demands, says Canadian academic

Do employees really want summer flex policies?

A recent survey of almost 3,000 full-time employees in Canada, the U.S. and the U.K. found an apparent contradiction: most employees want summer flexibility – but most of them are too stressed or too busy to use it.

The survey, released by Dayforce, found that 83% of respondents said summer flex policies can reduce burnout. However, most of the employees whose employers offer summer flexibility benefits say they can’t necessarily take advantage of them.

Why the discrepancy? In an effort to please employee desire for flexibility during summer months, employers forget about actual productivity, says Anil Verma, professor emeritus of industrial relations and HR management at the Rotman School of Management.

“Flexibility should be matched to demand for labour, for demand for the product,” he says. “If your demand is peak during the summer, then encouraging people to take more time off or to go away during summer, it doesn't make sense.”

Summer flex policies reduce productivity

Summer flex policies – which can include Summer Fridays, increased remote work options and flexible hours, and seasonal work-from-anywhere options – have downsides for employees, the survey found:

  • a third (31%) find it harder to get work done while colleagues are away
  • a quarter (25%) experienced more anxiety from trying to do more in less time
  • 22% said they are simply too busy to take advantage of summer flex policies, although they would like to.

Instead of focusing arbitrarily on making employees happy with popular policies, employers should be transparent about what the company can realistically provide, says Verma.

“If you want as an employer to create a satisfied workforce, the answer is not to change flexibility during the summer, and not at other times. The answer is to consult the workers,” he says.

“If you have dialogue with the employees … you consult people and see what their needs are, and you also communicate to them what the demand patterns are, like maybe a lot of people want to go away in the summer, but if that hurts the business, then when they come back, there might be less business for them, less work for them.”

Difficulty unplugging despite summer flex times

Another complaint expressed by employees is that even when they are able to take advantage of summer flex times to go on vacation, they can’t truly disconnect – only 39% of respondents said they fully unplug when they’re on summer vacation.

Several provinces and the federal government are planning “right to disconnect” legislation, and Ontario already has it in the books, as part of its Working for Workers Act which requires employers of over 25 staff to have relevant polices. However, Verma says it is up to employers to have conduct dialogue with employees to ensure they are able to disconnect.

“This has to be done as a policy from the top, not by individual managers. Because many individual managers, they just want to get the work done. They will be quite keen to have you work 24/7,” he says.

“The leader has to say, ‘This is the organizational value. We want people to disconnect and recharge and recoup their energies so they can come back to full vigour next week, so don't bother with emails on the weekends.’ If you get this message from the leader, it will foster that kind of culture.”

Balancing employee wants with business needs

The first thing employers need to do when considering their summer policies is determine the seasonality of their own business and if it makes sense to have reduced hours or a reduced workforce, Verma says.

“We have a lot of seasonal industries in Canada where activity is at the peak during summer. So you need people for that. You don't want to encourage people to go away at that time; in fact, in many industries, they provide incentives.”

After determining the demand patterns of the organization, the next task is to “create a structure within which you can systematically consult employees,” he says, explaining those patterns and why certain levels of staffing are required at different times, and possibly offering incentives (such as flexibility) during the more demanding periods.

“The primary goal of the business is to serve the customer, not to serve the employee,” Verma says. “But employees will line themselves up, if you get them the information and you trust them and you take them into confidence. When you share information, then employees can help you make those decisions optimally.”

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