This article originally appeared on June 8, 2018 in the Harvard Business Review.
Employers today know that employees want flexibility, and many companies say they offer it. But there are lots of people out there who need flexibility but don’t have access to it.
In our study on flexibility in the modern workforce, we set out to determine whether a gap exists between flexibility supply and demand. In other words, how many people need flexibility, and how many people actually have it? To find out, we surveyed 1,583 white-collar professionals representative of the U.S. workforce at large.
We predicted that a flexibility gap would exist, and our results validated that hypothesis: 96% of employees said they need flexibility, yet only 47% reported having access to the types of flexibility they need — a gap of 54%. This gap is even more pronounced for women, only 34% of whom have access to the flexibility they need. (According to their reports, men and women were almost equal in their need for flexibility: 97% of men and 95% of women said they needed it.) Of the employees who did report having access to some flexibility, only 19% said they had access to structured flexibility programs. A structured flexibility program is one in which employees have a range of flexibility options to choose from and those options are broadly communicated across an organization.
More specifically, our survey measured six distinct types of flexibility:
- TimeShift: unconventional hours. Employees reorder their working hours to create an unconventional schedule that optimizes productivity and performance. For example, an employee with a long commute might decide to regularly work from 7 AM to 3 PM instead of a standard 9-to-5 shift, to avoid rush hour.
- MicroAgility: freedom to adapt. Employees have the autonomy to step away from their work to accommodate the unexpected in microincrements; for example, an employee with otherwise standard hours might decide to step away from the hours of 4 PM to 6 PM so that he can attend a school play and make those hours up later.
- DeskPlus: location variety. Employees are based out of a company office, but they can work at a location of their choosing for some portion of their time.
- Remote: location independence. Employees do not work at a company office — they can work from anywhere.
- TravelLite: minimal travel. Employees have minimal to no travel, with a maximum of 10% travel annually (2–4 days per month or its annual equivalent).
- PartTime: reduced workload. Employees work on a part-time schedule.
Given the 54% gap between supply and demand for flexibility overall, it’s not surprising that we found significant gaps between the supply and demand of each flexibility type, indicating that companies are significantly underdelivering across every flexibility type. The most-needed kind of flexibility was location-based flexibility.
Our data tells a clear and quantifiable story about the gap between the supply and demand of workplace flexibility, but we also wanted to understand the impact of that gap on the U.S. workforce at large. We identified three ways employees are hurt by a lack of flexibility:
Care giving. Lack of flexibility places a significant burden on how employees take care of others, including children and aging parents. For example, 33% of respondents reported that the structure of their workday makes it challenging for them to be the type of parent they want to be.
Health and wellness. Lack of flexibility also has a significant impact on employees’ ability to take care of themselves. Younger workers in particular struggled with this, with 39% of Millennials reporting that the structure of their workday makes it challenging for them to make time for exercise and healthy living.
Productivity. We found that a lack of flexibility can also hurt the performance and productivity for as much as one-third of the workforce, with 34% of respondents reporting that the structure of their workday makes it challenging to perform in a sustainable way over time. In an economy where productivity is stagnant across the board, largely owing to a culture of overwork, flexibility is a key disruptor for improving productivity.
We also found negative implications for companies. These included:
Retention. Employees without access to flexibility are twice as likely to report being dissatisfied at work, and half of employees say they would leave their company if offered a more flexible alternative.
Advocacy. Employees with access to flexibility have employee net promoter scores (eNPS) 48 points higher than those without access to flexibility. This trend holds true among employees within the same organization (since different teams and departments often have different flexibility policies). eNPS isn’t just a strong predictor of attraction, engagement, and retention; it’s also directly correlated with a higher likelihood that employees will be net promoters of their company’s products or services, which is linked to bottom-line dollars.
Engagement and diversity. Employees with flexibility are 22% more likely to feel their ideas are valued and 21% more likely to believe they work in an environment that fosters diverse points of view.
We hope that companies will look at these findings and prioritize closing their flexibility gaps by implementing structured flexibility programs. They can start by assessing the needs of their employees and finding out which types of flexibility they’d most value. From there, they should design flexibility programs based on those needs, communicate them broadly, and continually measure their impact.