Flex-work benefits thriving in small businesses

Employers feel responsibility to help employees balance work and family.

It’s widely accepted these days that a top driver of employee commitment is recognizing and accommodating employees’ personal lives. And contrary to popular belief, small organizations are at least as capable as large companies at meeting employees’ needs when it comes to balancing home and work.

“People tend to assume that a major corporation can offer flexible work arrangements that a smaller business cannot because of its size, but we found that is simply not the case,” said Kerry Daly of the University of Guelph’s Centre for Families, Work and Well-being in Ontario, and co-author of a new study Family-Friendly Practices and Flexibility in Small Companies in Canada.

In fact, it turns out that small businesses are sometimes surpassing larger firms when it comes to helping employees balance home and work. Not only are they offering as many flexible work arrangements, but the informality, the sense of team and family and the inherent flexibility that define smaller organizations can make them ideally suited for flex-work to function effectively.

The problem many large companies have with their flexibility programs is, ironically enough, they’ve become too rigid, said Nora Spinks, president of Work-Life Harmony Enterprises.

In a lot of flexible programs, the employee has to be in by 10 and out by seven. Instead of one box, there may be five or six boxes to choose from, but it still not true flexibility, said Spinks.

Small businesses are becoming a bigger threat to poach employees who — and there is a great and growing number of these people — are attracted by the informality of small companies and want an organization that walks the talk when it comes to flexibility rather than merely introduces policies and programs.

“Big businesses need to look at smaller organizations and learn to be less rigid,” Spinks added.

The new research out of the University of Guelph found that more than three-quarters of employers at small businesses say they have some responsibility to help employees balance work and family commitments and 80 per cent of small companies provide at least one flexible work arrangement.

The estimate of the number of larger corporations that offer flexible work policies ranges anywhere from 40 to 70 per cent, said Daly.

Flexible work arrangements are typically very informal and driven by employee need rather than formal policies, said Daly. While just 21 per cent of respondents’ companies offer an employee assistance plan, 83 per cent provide time off to care for sick family members and 70 per cent give employees time off for elder care.

This seems to be the way small organizations function, said Kerry. “It’s very informal and there is a real reluctance to write anything down,” he said. Many small organizations fear that by writing something down and making it formal, the dynamic of the relationship will change from teamwork to entitlement.

The researchers concluded that the informal flexibility, the trust, reciprocal support and the ability to deal with employees on an individual basis are key to the success of flexible work arrangements.

Employees need to understand that their extra effort is reciprocal: while they may have to work extra to help pick up the slack when a co-worker is away, they will carry a larger load if they know they will be able to take time off whenever they need it.

The study also found most small business owners view their companies as teams and try to create family atmospheres.

“When you have a small company, it’s easier to talk to people about what’s going on in their lives,” said one business owner of a company that employs 21 people.

“We don’t control sick time and we don’t control time off. We expect people to be responsible and I don’t think anybody abuses it,” explained another owner of one small computer services firm.

On the whole, respondents to the survey said flex-work arrangements lead to improved productivity, loyalty and job satisfaction as well as being a useful tool for recruitment, while one-quarter of managers and owners said flexible work arrangements decrease productivity. There is no question that these can be costly arrangements, admitted Daly. “Small businesses may be especially affected if an employee is not able to be at the workplace,” the report stated.

And just like at big businesses though, small businesses face the challenge of managers who are not supportive of flexible work arrangements.

“Many cultures are determined by the manager or supervisor in charge of a department. It’s not enough to have policies, you need a manager who will use them and respond to them. Very good policies can get sabotaged at the departmental level,” said Daly.

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