Getting serious about flexibility: Why it's a must-have for modern workplaces

Employees playing game on break during flexible hours

Last month, we discussed the counter-intuitive economic trend plaguing organizations known as the “COVID paradox”—essentially, despite continued increased unemployment compared to April 2020, there remain more job openings than job seekers. Today, we’ll explore a primary factor driving this trend: Employee demands for greater flexibility. We’ll also talk a bit about where HR can start in terms of evaluating how flexible their organization is and some key areas where change can be made.



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We can't unsee it: Remote work's impact on expectations

Back in January, the IBM Institute of Business Value surveyed more than 14,000 consumers across nine countries to understand how employees’ perspectives, motivations, and aspirations changed as a result of the pandemic. This survey — which took place months before “the Great Resignation” drove headlines — served as a canary in the coal mine for what was to come. The study found that, despite being in the midst of a massive global economic crisis, high unemployment, and rampant uncertainty, 20 percent of employees voluntarily changed employers in 2020.

Employees cited nine primary reasons for leaving, ranging from career advancement to more purposeful work, but the most common factor by far was “I needed more flexibility in my schedule or work location.” This survey was just the first of many to prove that this work-from-home experiment has likely forever changed the employment landscape.

From March to April of last year, approximately 75 percent of the US workforce transitioned to working from home or stopped working due to business closures, though that figure slowly began decreasing around June. Despite some initial hesitation, studies show that most people have gotten quite comfortable working from home — they like it, especially when pandemic-specific barriers like a lack of childcare were reduced. Employees who have worked remotely for the better part of 18 months also report feeling that, at this point, they’ve proven their ability to remain effective and productive without navigating a daily commute. And they don’t think their employers should make them return to the office full-time.

In fact, according to a study by Harvard Business School, 81 percent of employees who have been working from home through the pandemic either don’t want to go back at all or want to revert to a hybrid schedule. Workforce Institute data shows, unsurprisingly, that opinions are divided along generational lines; Gen Z workers, who often meet their friends, spouses, and mentors in the office, are actually the most likely to want to return.

This isn’t to say that employees aren’t ever willing to work on-site. In fact, a significant portion want to balance working remotely with working in the office. They just want options, which is why a high percentage of organizations have shared hybrid return-to-office strategies. The people have spoken: when possible, they want remote opportunities.

Beyond remote work: Creative flexibility to make the in-person work experience better

Of course, remote work is not always feasible. The National Bureau of Economic Research published a report in April of 2020 estimating that just 37 percent of U.S. jobs can be performed entirely at home (with much variation across cities and industries). We all learned the importance of the essential worker and gained newfound and long-overdue respect for the frontline workers who served as the backbone of our stressed economy. Employees in fields such as healthcare or manufacturing understand that they can’t fulfill their roles at home. But that doesn’t mean that they aren’t paying attention to the newfound flexibility enjoyed by friends and family members, and desperately wanting – and deserving! – more of that for themselves.

Even when remote work won’t work, employers can make meaningful changes to their peoples’ lives by offering them creative flexible options. An unexpected consequence of the pandemic and the immediate, drastic shift in basic working conditions is that it’s encouraged both employees and employers to consider which other entrenched work patterns could use an adjustment. Let’s explore.

1. Revisit the 40-hour workweek

Have you ever stopped to consider where the 40-hour workweek came from? Here’s a quick history lesson. Back in 1867, a newly formed organization called the National Labor Union asked Congress to pass a law mandating the 8-hour workday – 8 hours for work, 8 hours for sleep, 8 hours “for what you will.” For the next 70 years, labor organizations fought with private companies, the government, and in several cases the police, for a shortened workday before the Fair Labor Standards Act finally went into effect in 1938.

There is no magic to 40 hours a week. It is essentially an arbitrary number labor unions came up with 130 years ago because it seemed well-balanced and had a good marketing hook.

On average, US workers work closer to 43 hours a week — in 2020, that figure was closer to 48. The work many employees are doing today is much more thought-intensive than that in the late 1800s and early 1900s, and countless studies suggest that few people actually work anywhere near 40 hours each week because the work itself is mentally exhausting. We spend quite a bit of time being unproductive and wasting time and resources — but we’re on the clock, still at our desks, so we don’t get the benefits of checking out, either. It’s a lose-lose for everyone.

Henry Ford famously found that fewer daily hours in his factories actually boosted productivity on his assembly line. It’s worth evaluating whether 40 hours a week is still working for us.

We've seen survey data suggesting that 73 percent of respondents feel employers should revisit the length of the working week and the hours when employees are expected to work, and 75 percent of respondents believe employee contracts should be based on meeting the needs of the business rather than a set number of hours. This makes perfect sense when you consider the fact that many people have been working altered hours for more than a year out of necessity and have proven that they can successfully maintain this flexibility. Employees want the opportunity to do so in a post-pandemic workplace, in a way that actually improves their quality of life as opposed to helping them stay afloat during a crisis.

Obviously, in order for this to work, organizations and managers will need to shift their measure of productivity from hours worked to overall impact. But it's worth nothing that organizations that offer this type of flexibility have a much higher percentage of high-performing workers than those that don't. According to Gartner data, organizations with a 40-hour work week have an average 36 percent of employees who are high performers, while those that offer employees flexibility over when and how much they work see 55 percent of their workforce as high performers.

Whether flexibility means allowing important appointments during the day, encouraging people to sign out early when their responsibilities are complete, looking into unlimited time off policies to give people the confidence to take the time they need when they need it, or even adopting a widespread four-day workweek (which isn’t really as far-fetched as it sounds, and is starting to become embraced in Europe), leaders can experience impressive results from adapting the demands of work to fit the pace of life.

2. Investigate flexible schedules

Remember: Flexibility goes hand-in-hand with autonomy and choices. When a certain number of set hours are required for the business to remain successful, consider providing more flexible schedules.

Just to give a quick example, at Globe Manufacturing Co. LLC in New Hampshire, employees traditionally began work at 6am. Many of them lamented this early start time, leading business leaders to evaluate the true business needs and find opportunities for flexibility. Eventually, they allowed employees to choose their start time, anywhere between 6am to 8am. Shockingly, a full 80 percent of employees chose to keep their 6am start time – but they felt better about it, because it was their choice.

If you've got the right kinds of scheduling solutions as part of your HR technology mix, it can make it much easier to offer options for flexibility. Prioritize systems that can account for employee preferences when providing scheduling options, be sensitive to employees' locations when offering shifts, and empower employees to check schedules and swap or claim shifts from their mobile device.

3. Allow self-service shift swapping

Just to add some more color to that last bit above, does a manager really need to be involved if two equally-qualified employees want to swap their shifts, assuming it doesn’t trigger any overtime or taxation issues? The ability to autonomously swap shifts with a coworker once again fulfills the important psychological need for autonomy while allowing workers to problem-solve together (and allowing managers to focus on higher-level initiatives). A modern scheduling solution should be able to take into account who's qualified for which shift options, check those against your overtime thresholds and other standards, show a filtered list to the right employees, and give your employees more direct control while also taking some administrative work off your managers' plates so they can focus more deeply on helping their team succeed.

4. Think about part-time work opportunities

Despite the fact that part-time workers have traditionally suffered from lower pay and reduced access to benefits, millions of Americans are “voluntary” part-time workers, meaning they work part-time for non-economic reasons, either because they want to work less than 35 hours a week or they’re unavailable to do so. In 2016, 21.4 million US workers fell into this category, and the share of employed people who work voluntary part-time has held steady for more than 20 years.

If part-time workers were afforded the same benefits and hourly wages as their full-time counterparts, it’s possible that many more employees—particularly the billions of working mothers who left the workforce this year—would be attracted to these roles. Take a look at your total rewards strategy to see what your organization could practically support for part-time workers. 

Part-time work options can also be a strong retention strategy when you pair them with the HR insights you can gain from AI tools. If your HR technology is smart enough to help you anticipate flight risk and predict fatigue levels among your people, for example, you could offer part-time work to strong performers who you might otherwise lose due to burnout.

5. Offer flexible PTO

Revisiting or creating PTO policies that enable more flexibility and offer floating holidays can be a boon for employees looking to add a little more autonomy into their lives. This is another huge opportunity for self-service and empowerment where you can give your people more access to time off request options or even implement unlimited time off if possible as we mentioned earlier.

Conclusion: Flexibility leads to autonomy and choice

Flexibility goes hand in hand with autonomy and choices. When employees have more control over their schedules, they are happier, less stressed, and more productive. You may not be able to allow employees to work from home, but that doesn’t mean you have nothing to offer them. By offering flexibility in creative ways, you can give your staff a better work-life balance and increase their productivity and engagement at work, so your company can thrive. If you need help getting there, UKG can help you communicate the value of these kinds of solutions to your leadership team.

In our next installment, we’ll be discussing another trend contributing to the Pandemic Paradox: Wellness.