Still suspicious of flexible working

May 01 2008 by Brian Amble Print This Article

It isn't altruism that persuades organizations to adopt more flexible working patterns. A shrinking talent pool and an increasingly independent workforce mean that flexible working is becoming a key weapon in the battle to attract, retain and engage staff.

But while a growing proportion of companies acknowledge that flexibility is becoming a critical retention and recruiting tool, most do not have the structure or support in place to maximize the value that these programs can provide.

Hot on the heels of a study by Wake Forest University School of Medicine showing that flexible working is associated with quantifiable improvements in absenteeism rates, job commitment and employee health, a survey by HR consultancy Hewitt Associates has revealed an almost unanimous belief that the benefits of such programs far outweigh their costs.

The survey of 90 U.S. employers also found that two thirds believed that flexibility increased employee engagement and boosted employee retention, while half believed that it helped their recruitment efforts.

But despite this, flexible working still seems to be something of a corporate Cinderella, with barely more than a quarter of those surveyed having company-wide, formal written policies and almost the same proportion not even formally communicating the flexible working options they offer to their employees.

Four out of 10 companies have policies or guidelines that vary by location, business unit, department, or job class, and a third only offer flexibility at the discretion of individual managers. Moreover, seven out of 10 admitted they don't measure the effectiveness of their programs in any way.

This widespread reluctance to formalize or communicate these ad hoc arrangements is symptomatic of the fact that many organizations seem culturally incapable of accepting the fact that productivity does not always have to be equated to presence.

As the survey found, a third of organizations admitted that the reason for not communicating their programs to employees was that they wanted to limit use of their flexible work arrangement programs, either because their company culture has not yet fully embraced them or because they are concerned with the logistics of having too many employees using the program.

And just as tellingly, only four out of 10 said they were confident in their managers' ability to manage employees who work flexibly.

"Human capital has become many companies' largest and fastest growing corporate expense, so organizations are feeling pressure to not only manage costs, but also to make sure they offer programs that can attract, retain - and most importantly - engage key talent," explained Carol Sladek, principal in Hewitt's Work-Life practice.

"Flexible work arrangements have become increasingly popular programs among employers because they are both highly valued by employees and relatively inexpensive for employers to implement. But these programs can also be terribly complex to design, manage and measure," she added.

"Companies with consistent and formal policies, strong education and communication, and ongoing measurement strategies in place will truly succeed in maximizing the return on their investment - both in terms of costs and employee engagement."