The American workplace is increasingly shifting gears when it comes to employee satisfaction.
Emerging out of the Industrial Era and the traditional five-day, 40-hour work week under a top-to-bottom hierarchy structure, companies are offering flexible work schedules to employees.
“The workplace we are familiar with was designed in the '30s and doesn't come from any strategy for productivity,” says Emma Plum. “It was more about employee protection; people were working way more hours than that.”
Plum is the director of 1 Million For Work Flexibility, a national coalition advocating for broader adoption of work flexibility. Launched by Sara Sutton Fell in 2013, 1MFWF stemmed from a belief that a modern workplace should address the needs of today's workforce, and using workplace technology to support telecommuting and flexible work will achieve societal, environmental and economic benefits for both employees and employers.
“We have adhered to these rules that have been in place for so long without really considering whether or not they are working,” Plum says. “More and more, there are two parents working, single parent households, sandwich generations — folks taking care of kids and aging parents, millennials looking for more balance and engagement at work. There's a lot of stress, mental and physical health issues associated with trying to juggle all the components of our lives.”
Employers also should take note about a system that may be doing more harm than good, Plum says. According to a recent Gallup study, “State of the American Workplace,” only 33 percent of America's 100 million full-time employees are what Gallup calls engaged at work — they love their jobs and make their organization and America better every day. Sixteen percent of employees are actively disengaged — they are miserable in the workplace and destroy what the most engaged employees build. The remaining 51 percent of employees are not engaged — they're just there.
These figures indicate an American leadership philosophy that simply doesn't work anymore, according to the Gallup report. Are the country's declining productivity numbers pointing to a need for major workplace disruption?
“There's a belief that the best way to communicate and get work done is when the employees are all in the same space,” Plum says. “There is no evidence to support that. No one size fits all.”
The term flexibility is hard for employers to wrap their heads around, Plum says, adding that employees also find it difficult to pinpoint what they want.
“Sometimes people want flexibility, but they don't know that's what they want,” she says. “They want to feel happier about their jobs, they want to be healthier and more productive. Flexibility is a critical way to get there. Think of it as working better, smarter.”
What is flex work exactly? Time hop back to 1918. Lebanese immigrant Albert George, along with family members, started George & Thomas Cone Company (now known as Joy Cone Company) in Pennsylvania, a major world supplier of ice cream cones. George took a different approach with his employees nearly a century ago. He allowed the company's 250 workers to self-schedule, negotiating among themselves to get all the shifts covered. He thought it was a respectful thing to do. As a result, they were more efficient, more productive and adhered to all the standards.
Meanwhile, George & Thomas Cone Company was running circles around its competitors. To this day, the company credits its success to always considering the needs of its employees and their families and maintaining the flexible work schedule.
It's Hewlett-Packard that brought the idea into the limelight in 1973 when it became the first U.S. company to implement formal flexible work arrangements with its employees.
“Flex time, telework, part time, job sharing, this all started in the '70s,” says Paul Rupert, owner of Rupert & Company. “We've seen a dramatic increase in the number of companies offering various kinds of flexibility. Demand from employees has always been the driver. Employers don't just get up and start doing this.”
Rupert, who has been consulting on workplace flexibility solutions for more than 40 years, says societal changes have forced companies to rethink the traditional work system.
“Flex work picked up in earnest in the '90s with the focus on work-family issues,” Rupert says. “More women in the workforce experienced demands on their time, unlike many of their male counterparts. Women really drove the initial push for part and flex time at work.”
As time went on, the move toward remote work has been driven more by the advances in technology, Rupert explains. Rising corporate real estate costs in the last 10 years also have been a contributing factor. Companies are shedding high-priced commercial real estate and allowing employees to work from home, especially on the East Coast and in Silicon Valley.
Rupert is a supporter of the 1 Million for Work Flexibility initiative.
“I think there are a variety of levels that we need to advance this issue,” he says. “The idea behind one million is to connect organizations and encourage them to bring the conversation about flex work into their industries and fields.”
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the share of workers doing some or all of their work at home grew from 19 percent in 2003 to 24 percent in 2015. Companies are finding that providing workers the opportunity to work from home can help persuade a candidate who's weighing one job offer against another.
For every step forward toward a more flexible workplace, there are steps back, Plum says.
“When companies aren't doing as well as they'd like, remote work and flex schedules are an easy target,” she says. “They fall back to what we're familiar with. Even if the 'norm' isn't producing what they want to see.”
Mika Cross, a U.S. Army veteran and 20-year federal workplace expert, has seen and been a part of the government's effort to revamp workplace policy by implementing flexibility and wellness programs across several different executive government departments.
“I've seen the government as a leader,” Cross says. “Some might not think that, but telework and flexible schedules are not seen as a soft benefit but as a workplace tool for driving recruitment, engagement, retention, productivity, in addition to cost saving.”
In 2010, the Telework Enhancement Act became law with strong stipulations for federal agencies to prove the validity of telework. It took the challenge seriously and saw significant results.
The U.S Department of Agriculture landed in the top 20 of job search site FlexJobs annual list of top 100 companies with the most postings for remote-friendly jobs — those that offer the potential for partial or full telecommuting — in the past year.
“Engagement and satisfaction scores rose, cost savings improved,” Cross says. “The brand of USDA for supporting telework and other flexibility and wellness programs, put the department on the map. It won a lot of awards. It's pretty impressive.”
Cross unwaveringly supports the 1 Million for Work Flexibility initiative.
“It provides a network of resources you can learn best practices from, learn from others how they overcame challenges and come away with ideas to implement in your own workplaces,” Cross says. “It's a nice network of support for like-minded businesses and organizations. I'd love to see more and more people to come on board and get on the list.”
Regarding one's personal decision to request or accept flexwork options, “it's really important to set your own internal barometer of what you consider success and happiness is,” Cross says.
For Cross, when she started her career, she didn't have kids. When her two children came along, she had to turn down really amazing career options because her needs for flexibility looked a lot different than they did 20 years ago.
“I knew in the back of my mind, I knew different opportunities would be there later,” she says. “I've had great personal success staying true to my values and knowing what's best for myself. Your definition of 'having it all' is going to look different than my version, and that's the beauty of flexible workplace programs. There's higher engagement and satisfaction when you invite people to the solution table.”
Management resistance is still one of the biggest barriers and challenges to workplace flexibility programming and policies, according to Cross. She believes not all change is bad, though. Workplace transformation can be embraced.
Cross offers advice to employees for approaching management about flex work. “Don't focus so much on the why,” she says. “Everyone has their own personal reasons for wanting or needing flexible work situations. It's more important to focus on addressing the employer concerns — how you're to stay connected and how you'll get the work done, for example. Suggest a trial period for 30 or 90 days to help alleviate fears your leadership might have. If it doesn't work out for either party, revisit the arrangement.”
The other piece, Cross notes, is the employer's concern of everybody wanting to do the same thing if one person is allowed to flex work or telework.
“For one, flexible schedules are not meant to be doled out the exact same for everyone,” Cross says. “And not everybody wants to telework. Some people like to have a division between work and home. Having a fleet of options in alignment with the company's mission and office policies really is important.”
“If we're going to be innovative and collaborative, were going to also have to be flexible, adaptive and agile,” she says. “It's a huge risk from a cultural perspective — not easy, but if organizations start to maximize talent management strategies, their middle-level power pool will eventually develop into leaders. There's a real opportunity to get it right.”
Cross adds good managers can manage teams effectively from anywhere, and good employees are going to meet the mark no matter where they are working from.
“That's the secret sauce,” she says.