By Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)
According to the latest study [PDF] by the Families and Work Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management, flexible working options are becoming more common. On the other hand, it’s becoming more difficult for individuals who make significant changes – like taking a break from work for family responsibilities – to get back into the workforce at the same rate as a few years ago.
For example, while the use of flex time, working from home, or taking time off during the day have all increased since the last survey was performed in 2005, more extensive changes in how people work have decreased. The ability to “return to work gradually after childbirth or adoption,” “take a career break,” or “move between part time and full time work,” have all decreased since 2005.
Day-to-day, the need for more flexibility is clear – today we are seeing increased workloads and busier workers, who are often part of dual-career families. New technology is cutting the physical ties that bind people to the office. And companies are recognizing that.
On the other hand, companies do not seem to be acknowledging the importance of retaining long-term, experienced employees who may need to decrease their work-schedule for a more extended amount of time due to personal pulls. Because women disproportionately take extended leaves of absence or shift between full and part time, this new data suggests that companies may face challenges keeping the pipeline of talented women flowing to the top.
Research shows that when companies refuse to work with women based on their long-term flexibility needs, they leave the workforce altogether. And that’s bad for families, communities, and companies.
Doing More with Less
The researchers attributed some of the changes to the economic situation. By providing more flexibility in how work gets done on a day-to-day basis, workers are able to be more productive. Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of FWI and co- author of the study said, “It seems that employers are dealing with the lingering economic instability by trying to accomplish more with fewer people.”
She continued, “Most of the gains allow employees to work longer hours or adjust those hours to care for their personal and family responsibilities while getting their work done. Although some may have expected employers to cut back on flexibility entirely during this economic downturn, we are seeing employers leverage flexibility as they look toward the future.”
Certainly the jobs situation in the US has also had an impact on long term absences – when so many people are struggling to find work, companies may have a hard time justifying extended leave programs. For example, the study said, companies allowing employees to take a career break for personal or family reasons decreased from 73% in 2005 to 52% in 2012. The ability to move from full time to part time work or vice versa, while retaining the same employment level, decreased from 54% to 41% in 2012.
Women are traditionally more likely to be caregivers for both children and elderly parents, and they more often need long-term flexibility because of these pressures. Will the trend toward day-to-day flex alleviate some of the challenges associated with outside responsibilities, making long-term flex less of a necessity?
The researchers suggest that the decrease in long-term flex comes as a trade-off for more day-to-day flexibility. Ken Matos, senior director of employment research and practice at FWI and the lead author of the report, said, “It is clear that employers continue to struggle with fewer resources for benefits that incur a direct cost.”
He continued, “However, they have made it a priority to grant employees access to a wider variety of benefits that fit their individual and family needs and that improve their health and well-being.”
Finally, the report suggests that while flex policies may be on the books, many work places may not culturally support flexible working. It says:
“Far fewer employers, however, responded “very true” to statements asking whether management rewards those within the organization who support flexible work arrangements (12%) and whether their organization makes a real and ongoing effort to inform employees of the availability of work life assistance (25%).”
By approaching flex as a cultural issue, rather than a matter of policy, companies can better work to make workplace flexibility a reality that ensures individuals are able to care for family responsibilities and be more productive, how and when they need to.