Key Trends in HR
Part 3: Businesses Embrace Many Flex-Work Options

By Toni Vranjes

December 21, 2012

What trends have been shaping human resources in recent years, and what are the expectations for 2013? To provide insight, Revive My Career is running a three-part series covering key developments in HR.

  • Part 1 examines the sophisticated world of recruiting and hiring technology, which employers are using to increase efficiency and find the best candidates.
  • Part 2 focuses on compensation and benefits. Companies are rewarding top achievers and expanding benefit programs — but they’re also shifting accountability to employees.
  • Part 3 explores the growing appeal of flex time and telecommuting. As workers face conflicting demands from work and home, these flexible arrangements are expanding.

Increased Flexibility

In recent years, employers have embraced a variety of flexible work options, according to a study by the Families and Work Institute. The survey found that more businesses are offering options for when and where to work. The researchers surveyed 1,126 employers with 50 or more workers.

From 2005 to 2012, many options expanded, including:

  • Flex time (up from 66 percent of workplaces, to 77 percent of workplaces).
  • Flex place/telecommuting (which increased from 34 percent to 63 percent).
  • Choices in managing time (up from 78 percent to 93 percent).
  • Daily time off when important needs arise (up from 77 percent to 87 percent).

However, the survey found that employers are providing less flexibility to reduce the total number of hours worked. For instance, the study found a decline in availability of career breaks for personal or family responsibilities (down from 73 percent to 52 percent). Also on the decline: the option to move from part-time status, to full-time status, and back again (down from 54 percent to 41 percent).

Benefits of Workplace Flexibility

BrowsingFlexible work arrangements have many positive aspects, for both employers and employees.

“There are some definite advantages, particularly now with so many people who would like to work from home and have flexible hours,” says Thomas M. Anderson, human-resources director at Houston Community College System.

For one thing, it helps employees achieve work-life balance. They’ll be able to attend their kids’ school plays, go to the doctor when necessary, and take care of important personal matters. According to research, it also helps boost employee performance. In addition, workplace flexibility helps attract and retain top talent, says Anderson, who is also an HR Disciplines panelist for the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

The most popular types of flexible work arrangements are 4/10 and 9/80 work schedules, Anderson adds.

Some innovative flexible options also can promote a new sense of freedom among employees. For instance, Netflix and certain other companies have eliminated their traditional vacation policies, and they’ve replaced them with unlimited vacation time. Although employees can take as many vacations days as they want, they’re accountable for their work and must complete all of their assignments. In general, workers continue to meet their responsibilities while enjoying these freedoms, says Alan Mellish, a senior analyst at the Human Capital Institute.

Despite Benefits, Concerns Linger

Nevertheless, some employers still aren’t convinced that workplace flexibility is a good idea. One major concern is that workers will face a lot of distractions.

Anderson says: “The biggest concern is: Are employees really doing work? Are they really focused on what they’re supposed to be doing?”

With recent technological advances, such as keystroke monitoring, firms can monitor their workers at home. However, this technology might be perceived as invasive.

Another worry: that employees who telecommute will be less connected to co-workers and managers. Some employers might resist because they want to have a team, rather than a group of individuals, and they believe that working at home will lead to less camaraderie, according to Anderson.

Availability of Flex Work Varies

Flexible work isn’t an option for everyone. Employers need to consider if it’s feasible for them, and they must weigh the advantages and disadvantages, Anderson says.

The availability varies by job, by company, and by industry.

Flexible arrangements often make sense for “knowledge workers,” who often work using their laptops, says Mellish. They might be more difficult to implement in manufacturing settings. However, some manufacturers use contract workers for high-skill jobs, he adds. For instance, manufacturers might use contract workers to meet seasonal increases in demand, and then release them when they’re no longer needed. Mellish says that some workers like this type of flexibility.

“Some people choose that lifestyle if they know they can earn enough to live the life they want,” he says. “They don’t want to be tied to a 9-to-5 job.”

The study by the Families and Work Institute found that flexibility varies greatly by type of employer. The research shows that not-for-profit and large organizations were most likely to be flexible. So were employers with:

  • fewer union members
  • fewer hourly employees
  • more part-time workers
  • more women in their workforce
  • more women and minorities in senior positions

Looking Ahead

Both Anderson and Mellish expect increased workplace flexibility in 2013. It helps people balance work and family, and so it has a very powerful appeal.

“To attract great people, you need to go more in this direction,” Mellish says.

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