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When most people think of “flexibility,” we usually think about physical flexibility.  In contrast, flex in the workplace is often synonymous with temporal (or time-based) flexibility — in other words, flex-time, compressed work weeks, or telecommuting.  But neither one of these definitions encompasses the full range of flexible options that employers can and should offer their workers — especially if you want to recruit and retain Millennial workers.

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, “flexibility” is defined as “a ready capability to adapt to new, different, or changing requirements.”  Since no one can deny that we are working in a time of constant and often unrelenting change, this ability to be adaptable in quickly responding to changing situations and requirements can be the definitive factor in whether an organization will succeed or fail.

We’re Working Longer…and Stressing Out More 

The average American worker spends 33% of their lives at work.  The “typical” 8-hour work day was first recommended by Robert Marcus Owen (a Welsh social reformer), who advised back in 1817 that workers spend their time in “8 hours labor, 8 hours recreation, 8 hours rest.” Perhaps he was the first to advocate that companies provide a framework in which their employees could achieve work-life balance.

But 200 years later, the idea of a 40-hour work week is often a sweet memory for many of workers — especially those in the U.S. According to a recent study, 85.8% of men and 66.5% of women labor over 40 hours weekly — with the average overall work week ballooning to 46.7 hours.  Salaried workers (who receive the same compensation regardless of the hours worked) average 49 hours weekly (or approximately 22.5% more hours than the traditional 40 hours).  Weekends are no longer are time to “catch up” on rest and relaxation:  33% of workers spent at least some portion of their “days off” working on projects for their employers.

The fact is that we are working much longer hours than we have in the past — despite no decrease in our personal responsibilities and commitments.  

Taken at a more granular holistic level, the demands on the modern worker are far beyond those associated with their jobs.  Employees (regardless of title, status, field, or industry) are bombarded with diverse demands arising from both their professional and personal lives.  Often these demands are time intensive and conflict with each other.  Many times, these demands affect them on a short-term basis — but too often employers refuse their workers’ intermittent requests for a little bit of temporal or location-based flexibility to help them effectively meet their conflicting responsibilities.

The need for employers to provide greater flexibility to their workers has become even more pronounced in today’s hypercompetitive, 24/7 world.  Technology provides a great tool for not only temporal flexible options, but also those that are location-based.  In an effort to balance work-life responsibilities, workers look to their employers for alternative arrangements that enable them to efficiently and effectively meet these competing demands.

But when workers are not given the permission to modify their work schedules in order to help them cope, the associated job-related stress can become unbearable — leading to not only burnout, but also decreased performance and high levels of turnover.

The result is a lose-lose outcome for both the organization and its workers.

The Advantages of Workplace Flexibility 

There is significant research-based evidence that employers who embrace flexibility in their workplaces reap immediate and long-term benefits, including but not limited to:

  • Lower levels of energy-sapping burnout that renders workers incapable of effective problem-solving and decision-making
  • Lower levels of stress-related turnover and attrition
  • Higher levels of work-life balance and overall job satisfaction
  • Increased productivity and performance when employees are able to work at the times when they are most alert and focused (rather than trying to adjust their personal biological clocks to coincide with predetermined work times)
  • Recognition as an employer of choice that leads to a larger influx of high quality job candidates and good will

Because workers spend so many of their waking hours at work or thinking about work, it is not surprising that the work environment exerts a profound effect on an employee’s overall well-being.

Flexible work schedules play an important role in “employee wellness or well-being” programs — a growing area in employee benefits.  However, the idea of offering employees benefits that will improve their overall well-being has been around for a long time…would you believe around 1700?!

Bernardini Ramazzini (1633-1714) was the first to warn of the negative effects of work exposure on workers (occupational diseases) and encouraged employers to take preventative measures to avoid them.  

More recently, larger companies have begun to offer programs to help workers achieve greater workplace wellness.  While initially focusing in the mid-1970s on physical fitness in an effort to contain health-related costs, workplace wellness programs under the guise of EAPs (employee assistance programs) began to take a more holistic approach with an emphasis on both physical and mental health in the 1980s.  Greater education, lifestyle and behavioral change programs, as well as the creation of a supportive work environment gained traction in the 1990s.  The current approach to workplace wellness has added financial incentives to employees who create and implement more healthy behaviors in their lives.

Types of Workplace Flexibility 

While much emphasis has been placed on flexible work schedules, there  many more programs and policies that can enable organizations to embrace flexibility and harness its its benefits.

The following are 4 ideas to create a culture of flexibility in ways that extend beyond traditional work scheduling:

  1. Child care According to the 2016 Care Index, the average annual cost of child care for one child ranges between $8,589 and $28,354 (in-center vs. at-home care, respectively).  Such a significant expense can be offset with not only employer-provided on-site child care, but this can be an expensive option.  However, it costs little to nothing to build a workplace culture that sets regular start and end times for meetings and predictable scheduling; this simple change can eliminate the stress experienced by workers when a prolonged meeting interferes with their ability for a timely daycare pick-up of their child.  Other types of flexibility include employer-provided backup child care and flexible spending accounts that permit pre-tax income to be used for child care.
  2. Food service.  According to a study by Eat Club (a business lunch delivery service), providing lunch for employees can yield a 150% ROI.  Not only does it make employees feel appreciated, but providing access to a free and healthy lunch also decreases the time required for an employee to go off-site in search of a mid-day meal.  But the benefits have even more substantial bottom-line results:  54% of employees are more likely to stay with the company and 70% are more likely to recommend the company as a great place to work.
  3. On-site fitness facilities.  One of the first companies to offer athletic programs for workers was launched by the Pullman Company way back in 1879; National Cash Register introduced twice daily exercise breaks, an employee gym, and a 325-acre recreation park only a few years later.  Access to physical activity and movement away from being seated at a desk has increased as a desirable workplace perquisite; not only does physical movement create a more healthy lifestyle, but it also reduces stress.  In a 2015 Quantum Workplace/Limeade survey, 71.1% of workers wanted employers to provide “stress relief” breaks – even though only 28.4% of their employers currently provided this benefit.
  4. Concierge services.  Due to the high demands placed on many workers, some companies have offered personal assistants to help employees tackle competing responsibilities; this not only decreases stress levels, but also enables workers to better focus on the job.  Many of the companies on Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For List offer these services.  The range of concierge services are limited only by imagination and financial commitment.  The best way to determine which services will be utilized by employees is to ask them; some possible options include pet sitting, dry cleaning, meal planning, and travel reservations.

Without employees, there is no company.  Without engaged and committed employees, there is no sustainability and profitability.  In other words, your company depends on employees for its survival.  

As companies increasingly focus on superior customer service as a way to differentiate themselves from the competition, there is an urgent need to create a culture and environment that nurtures the health, minds, and hearts of its workers.  After all, stressed out workers are more likely to be irritable, frustrated, and disengaged.

It is no longer sufficient to assume that financial compensation alone will motivate and inspire workers to do their best work.  Workers want, need, and demand more from their employers.

In today’s time-strapped environment, workers need help to meet conflicting responsibilities.  This requires companies to embrace a more holistic view of the psychological contract between them and their workers.  Flexible cultures offer workers a much desired incentive that not only encourages them to perform at their highest level, but also to remain as a valuable contributor to their employer’s success.

Decreased absenteeism and turnover.  A heightened sense of feeling respected and appreciated.  Less stress and burnout.  Higher productivity and performance.  These are just a few of the benefits arising from a culture of flexibility.  Isn’t it time to embrace a more flexible approach to the typical working relationship?

Dr. Geri Puleo, SPHR, is the President and CEO of Change Management Solutions, Inc., an eLearning and Coaching company focused on eradicating workplace burnout through the B-DOC Model.  An entrepreneur for over 25 years, keynote speaker, author, blogger, business coach, university professor, and researcher, you can see her “in action” by watching her TEDx Talk on YouTube.  To contact Dr. Puleo, please go to www.gapuleo.com

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