Flexible Work: Making Space for More

One of the ways organizations are adjusting to modern expectations and needs is by adopting a flexible work arrangement (FWA), often just referred to as flexible work or flexible working. Like the idea of agile work, this is part of the Activity-Based Working (ABW) approach. Unlike agile work, which focuses on the organization, flexible work is all about the employee and the employee-experience.

History of Flexible Work

Pioneered in Germany in the 1960s, flexible work started being experimented with in the US, the UK and Canada in the 70s. Back then it was known as flextime, but the concept expanded beyond just which hours people are on the job.

Companies that used flextime let employees have a say in their own schedules. Instead of a rule that everyone comes in at 9am and leaves at 5pm, people could adjust on either end on that time range. For example, coming in at 11am and leaving at 7pm, or coming in at 8am and leaving at 4pm. Provided the employee worked their full 8 hours and were in the facility during “core” hours (usually 11am to 3pm), they could decide when they stopped and started.

Most companies that used flextime also had what were called “bandwidth” hours, meaning that there were hard stops at either end of the time range (usually no one could come in earlier than 5:30am or stay later than 7:30pm). So, while there were clear restrictions, there were far fewer than the traditional 9-5 system, which came out of the Industrial Revolution and factory production work.

Flextime enabled employees to strike a better work-life balance. If their children got home from school at 4pm, a parent on flextime could also be home when they arrived. People could coordinate with public transportation schedules or avoid rush hour traffic to shorten their commutes or adjust on the fly as things came up in their lives.

Expanding Flexible Work

It wasn’t long before a new aspect was added – that of flexplace. This let people decide where they worked, again with clear boundaries in place. Sometimes this meant that an employee could work at different offices of branches if it was feasible for their tasks, or even work remotely, from home or elsewhere.

And then came flexbenefits. Instead of the organization offering a series of benefits that were pre-determined, employees had a choice of several to choose from. One person might want medical insurance that includes dental, a life insurance policy, and a retirement plan. Another might want medical care but not need dental, opting instead to have the company pay for their gym membership and childcare.

Over time, the range of benefits offered to people expanded to include paid vacations, amusement park tickets, salary bonuses, smartwatches, enrollment in programs like Weight Watchers or therapy sessions, donations to a charity the employee chooses, elder support, prenatal support, extra tutoring for children, and more.

Today, organizations also sometimes offer to help someone set up and optimize their home office (if there’s a remote work or hybrid system in place), decarbonize people’s homes or make them more energy efficient, assist with e-waste (disposing of old computers, phones, and other electronics in a sustainable and ethical way), supply fitness equipment or ergonomic accessories, provide immigration assistance, supplement transportation costs and a whole host of other options.

Nixing the Naysayers

Detractors have sometimes called all these flex-options “buffet benefits”, as if a buffet is somehow low-class and beneath a respectable business. But that’s actually not a bad metaphor – like a buffet, there’s a range of options (a good selection, but not unlimited) and people can choose the ones they prefer.

All this turned out to be successful and quite popular with employees, as should be clear since today more and more organizations offer some form of flextime, flexplace and/or flexbenefits. In fact, since so many places now offer various flex-options, this can be a dealbreaker for many younger workers.

People who’ve been working longer might be skeptical of these new types of systems, but that’s probably because they haven’t tried them before. Almost no one who has experienced flexible work complains about it.

If you have any holdouts, a good way to get people on board is to use your intranet and digital signage system to promote various aspects of your flexible work options. A series of short messages, each highlighting a single element, can highlight the benefits and serve as regular reminders of what’s possible. You might even poll employees to see what sorts of things they’d prefer to have available to them. This creates a two-way dialogue instead of just rules being handed down from management.

Benefits of Flexible Work

Adoption of flexible alternatives has become more widespread over the past 40 years, because there are clear benefits for both employees and employers.

Work-Life Balance

This tops every list of benefits of flexible work. People have more control over their day-to-day lives, which makes them feel empowered, healthier and happier. Employees with options can better manage and blend their lives and work to meet their needs. It also shows that their employer trusts them and doesn’t need to micromanage when or where they work.

The United Kingdom has really embraced flexible working. More than half of all companies, regardless of which industry, use flexible work patterns, and almost three-fourths of managers say they support the idea. 40% of British employees say they would choose flexible options over extra salary. The stats are similar for the United States and Canada.

In the US, some companies now offer the option for people to work a compressed week of four 10-hour days per week instead of five 8-hour days. Others have adopted what’s called a 9/80 work schedule, which is working nine hours M-Th and eight hours on Friday, but taking every other Friday off entirely. It still works out the same number of work hours per month as five 8-hour days, week in and week out.

Increased Job Satisfaction

Flexible work also leads to higher productivity. People are less stressed, which medical studies show means they are less likely to suffer health problems as a result of their work. The WHO says that almost three-quarters of a million people die worldwide each year due to heart disease or stroke that is directly linked to working too much (defined as 55 hours or more per week).

Flexible work also holds the employer a bit accountable. Since hours are being tracked so closely, the employee is far less likely to be overworked without some sort of compensation.

When people have less on their minds, like “Oh, I have to go get the kids” or “When will I find time for my doctor’s appointment?”, they can focus on their work more. And the employer becomes, not an impediment to things going on in their lives, but an enabler and partner. This creates more buy-in to the organization and fosters a greater sense of loyalty. This higher job satisfaction leads in turn to higher retention rates.

Interestingly, some early studies in Europe have suggested that flexible work might be a positive variable in closing the gender pay gap, since compensation for work done can take many forms and balance out inequity in salary.

Time & Cost Savings

When people can have a long weekend, or work remotely at least part of the time, they are obviously commuting less. The average commute time in the US is 26 minutes each way, or almost an hour every day. That’s the national average – in some locations it’s far more (in New Jersey it’s 59 minutes total and in Idaho it’s over 60). That’s quite a bit of time, and if that can get reduced by even one-fifth, that’s a lot of time savings. The national average for commuting is 225 hours per year or a bit over five full work weeks, so working only four days a week cuts that down significantly.

Less commuting also saves people money. The average US commuter spends $8,466 per year just on going to and from work. That’s around 7% of the average salary, though high-income figures skew that, so in practice, for most people, it’s more like 15%. Again, a four-day work week saves employees $2116 per year, or $176 per month.

There are larger effects of commuting as well. While cars are getting more fuel-efficient all the time, it’s estimated that a single medium-sized car emits 3.9 tons of carbon every year just during commutes. That’s per car, and 74% of commuters drive alone in their vehicle.

A few forward-thinking companies have started experimenting with subsidies and other incentives to encourage their employees to carpool. If just 5% of the American workforce did this, it would eliminate almost 21 million tons of carbon per year. A four-day work week, remote and hybrid work options all reduce commuting, with all the negative health, financial and ecological effects similarly reduced.

Childcare is another cost facing employees. Reducing the number of days or hours a person has to work each week can mean they spend less on childcare and get to spend more time with their family as well.

Less Absenteeism

Companies using remote and hybrid models are starting to find there’s less tardiness and absenteeism. If someone is feeling a bit ill, they won’t want to come into the office because of the commute and also because they don’t want to get their co-workers sick (coming in to work while sick is known as presenteeism and can lead to an illness ripping through a workforce). So, a day of productivity may be lost. But if that employee isn’t bed-ridden, they can do some work from home, so productivity is not lost, and no one else catches the bug.

Types of Flexible Work

Some of these have already been briefly mentioned, but a list is a convenient way to see several possibilities in one place.

  • Flextime – Employees have some leeway as to when they work. Some employers have also started offering unlimited paid time off (PTO), provided all tasks are completed in a timely manner. There may be core hours, when people must be in the office, as well as bandwidth hours that have clear time cutoffs at the beginning and end of the workday.
  • Remote Work – Employees still work their full schedule, but from outside the office.
  • Hybrid Work – Employees work some of the time from home, and sometimes in the office.
  • Compressed Week – Employees still work 40 hours, but can adjust how much they work each day so they can have a long weekend from time to time, or a day off midweek.
  • Annualized Hours – The employee and employer work out in advance a maximum number of hours for a certain period of time (like a month or even a year). Provided it’s feasible, the employee can then work those hours however they choose.
  • Flexplace – Employees have options as to where they work. Usually, this means working at least part of the time remotely, though it could also include working at a subsidiary or branch office closer to home.
  • Job Sharing – One fulltime position (and its requisite hours) is split between two or more employees. The people sharing the job decide who works when and where.
  • Work Sharing – If an organization has to cut costs and is considering downsizing and layoffs, one option is that many positions get a slight reduction in hours instead of a few being eliminated.
  • Phased Retirement – As an employee begins to approach retirement age, an agreement is struck that the worker starts reducing their hours slowly, phasing out in a gradual manner. This allows more time for training a replacement, restructuring processes and redistributing tasks. 

These are just some of the more common forms flexible work can take. If an organization is committed to the principles flexible work expresses, then almost any sort of arrangement can be agreed upon. Adding flexbenefits to a compensation package is another way to give employees a say in their relationship with their employer.

There are benefits to both employees and employers in adopting at least some aspects of flexible work. And many employment scenarios really don’t need a person to be physically present 8am to 5pm, Monday through Friday. This is just a habit, and a habit it’s about time we started to break. There are more and more organizations of all kinds using flexible work to everyone’s advantage.

As David Coplin, author and chief envisioning officer for Microsoft UK, said:

We need to take a more flexible approach to both the workplace and the work we do; one that provides us both the physical and cognitive space to harness the incredible power, insight and experience we offer, but focused not on the individual processes but instead on the overall outcomes our organisations are seeking to achieve.