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Officially, flexible work schedules are part of flexible work practices. That is, those practices that give employees some control over when, where, and how much they work on any given day, week, month, or some other block of time.
Even before the pandemic, flexible work schedules were fairly common. According to a study published in The Academy of Management Journal in 2012, American organizations with at least 50 employees found that 79 percent of organizations offered flexible schedules (starting and stopping times), while 38 percent offered compressed work weeks (fewer than five days).
The growing desire for flexible working hours policy is also substantial. GWU researchers found that “nearly 80% of workers say they would have more flexible work options and would use them if there were no negative consequences at work.” One negative consequence of flex-work—according to 40% of workers profiled in the study—is the lesser likelihood of career advancement.
While flexible work schedules have risen in popularity over the last decade, they haven’t exactly been mainstream. But a year into the pandemic, many managers and workers are more intimately acquainted with the benefits of flexible work schedules, as well as their drawbacks. Indeed, widespread work schedule flexibility has become something of a norm for many people, despite its existence at certain companies and in labor economics research.
There are a number of advantages and disadvantages to flexible working hours. In what follows, we will discuss many of these flexible work benefits and drawbacks.
We’ve mentioned a few types of flexible work arrangements. But what does “flexible working hours” actually mean in practice?
There are several different types of flexible work arrangements. For businesses that have the flex schedules, some of these arrangements can overlap. Below is a list of the various types of flexible work schedules (FWS), with descriptions.
*If you want even more detailed descriptions of flexible work arrangements, the University of Missouri System website has dives into some of the other intricacies of these schedules.
Mental wellbeing and overall job satisfaction, both leading to greater productivity, are closely correlated with flexible work schedules.
For years, labor economists and other academic researchers have explored such connections in research papers. And many businesses have successfully incorporated these arrangements into their business culture (more on this in the following section).
In 2016, researchers Lonnie Golden, Julia Henl, and Susan Lambert published a paper that found a correlation between worker happiness and the freedom to structure work schedules to better fit personal life.
Among those employees who had no autonomy over their work schedules, 45 percent experienced symptoms of “overwork”—over three times the rate of those who had flexible work arrangements. Correspondingly, a study published in the American Sociological Review found that flexible work arrangements “reduced burnout, perceived stress, and psychological distress, and increased job satisfaction.”
Golden and his co-authors weren’t the only researchers to find that flexible work arrangements led to increased worker happiness. In the 2018 report “The Global State of Remote Worker”, researchers found that those working remotely once a month (at minimum) are 24% more likely to be happy.
Similarly, George Washington University researchers found that flexible work schedules reduce stress and tardiness, but also made employees more willing to work harder to help their company achieve success.
Another finding revealed that flexible work hours helped attract and retain employees. In one of the study’s surveys, 90% of telecommuters reported that FWS’s better enable them to balance work and home life. Employees can also benefit from flexible work arrangements like telecommuting and remote work by saving money on commuting to and from the job’s headquarters.
The Boston College study found that employees with flexible schedules reported the highest life satisfaction scores. Sixty-five reported being “very satisfied” compared to 59% for non-users. Boston College researchers also found that “70% of managers and 87% of employees reported that working a flexible arrangement had a positive or very positive impact on productivity.”
Flexible work schedules aren’t just good arrangements for employees. There are many upsides for employers worth noting, including an increase in overall company morale when employees achieve work-life balance.
Global Workplace Analytics estimates that a typical employer can save on average $11,000 per half-time telecommuter per year. Savings accrue via increased employee productivity, reduced absenteeism and employer turnover, and lower real estate and overhead costs.
Employee productivity isn’t just about work output. A study by the University of Minnesota’s Humphrey School of Public Affairs found that managers also expressed “high satisfaction” with FWS because of greater quality work.
A 2017 report by video conferencing company Owl Labs found that companies supporting remote work (a type of FWS) see 25% lower employer turnover than companies that do not. The same report found that “fully distributed companies” take 33% less time to hire new employees.
It’s important to understand, however, that not all industries can implement flexible work arrangements. Many retail companies and restaurants, for instance, require more rigid employee scheduling, although others can make it work.
A number of companies are known for doing flex-work the right away. Or at the very least putting a good amount of thought into how to make it work for them.
Basecamp, for instance, has a number of flexible work arrangements. In addition to paid time off, the company offers family leave for a new child (up to 16 weeks at 100% paid salary), and 4-day work weeks during the summer (May 1 - August 31).
Zapier, which is 100% distributed (aka, fully remote), has 300 employees across the globe, each with different schedules. Some work traditional 9-to-5 jobs, while others have more odd hours.
At Zynga, a developer of social games for mobile and the web, most teams accommodate flexible work hours.
Peloton Cycle offers what it calls “ample vacation days” and flexible work programs to “keep up with today’s varied lifestyles”, and keep workers doing their best work.
In addition to flexible work schedules, Duolingo offers full paid parental and adoption leave.
Vox Media clearly states its intention to help employees find work-life balance, offering workers flexible work arrangements with paid time off and parental leave benefits.
These are just a few companies that currently have FWS programs. And they openly advertise these arrangements in their employee recruitment.
According to GWU research, 80% of workers would use flexible work schedules if offered. However, 40% of workers worry that career advancement would suffer if they had flexible work arrangements. There may also be concerns about job security, especially among women, who the Pew Research Center found were more likely to seek FWH to accommodate work-life balance.
To allay these concerns, employers and employees could openly discuss these issues to build trust. In this way, employees would know that job security and mobility would not be impacted, while employers would be more confident that work productivity and quality would not suffer.
Another area where trust will be vital in flexible work schedules is in attendance management. Employers will need to trust that employees working remotely are actually working when they should be.
To establish this trust, businesses may want to have remote or telecommuting workers log their hours on a daily basis.
Employees, managers, and general workers can also experience a loss of “office culture”. In offices, many company team members enjoy “water cooler” conversations, where ideas can be shared in low-risk situations.
In an article published in The Economist’s Executive Education Navigator, Kimberly Schneiderman, practice development manager at RiseSmart, said this can be addressed when companies build a culture of “instant messaging tools, texting, phone conversations and video chat.”
Another potential issue relates to meetings. If many employees have flex schedules, it may be hard to organize meetings where all employees are there at the same time. A way around this is to either schedule one day per week when employees must be at the office.
Another tactic might be a combination of in-office and virtual meeting rooms to discuss business matters, which many companies are quite familiar with now because of the pandemic.
While flexible work schedules were already trending before 2020, it’s fair to say the Covid-19 pandemic has accelerated broader acceptance of these arrangements. In the future, flex-work is likely to become even more mainstream.
In 2013, some tech companies like Yahoo, IBM, and Hewlett-Packard famously ended remote work arrangements. In 2020, a number of companies have done quite the opposite. In May of last year, Facebook announced its transition of tens of thousands of jobs to permanent remote work.
“We need to do this in a way that’s thoughtful and responsible, so we’re going to do this in a measured way,” Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg told The Verge. “But I think that it’s possible that over the next five to 10 years — maybe closer to 10 than five, but somewhere in that range — I think we could get to about half of the company working remotely permanently.”
In October of 2020, file sharing Dropbox instituted its “Virtual First” program.
“Remote work (outside an office) will be the primary experience for all employees and the day-to-day default for individual work,” wrote the Dropbox team on the company’s blog. “And, once it’s safe to do so, we’ll continue to facilitate a cadence of in-person collaboration and team gathering either through our existing real estate or other flexible spaces.”
But it hasn’t been just tech companies talking about more flexible work arrangements. At the same time Facebook made its remote work announcement, CNBC reported other companies like Barclays, Nationwide, and Mondelez (a food and beverage company) were openly embracing remote work.
At the time, Nationwide announced a permanent transition to hybrid work model where most employees would from home, even as it would continue to operate in its four primary corporate offices in Ohio, Iowa, Arizona, and Texas.
As noted in the section on companies that are doing flexible work hours right, many companies’ human resources departments are building flexible work arrangements into their recruiting process. They aren’t just advertising FWS to get recruits’ attention, but to deeply embed it into the company culture.