3 Reasons 'Casual Flex' at Work Doesn't Work
Company managers too often believe that flexible work impedes productivity, and that, alternatively, long hours and lots of face time are signs of real work. Wrong. They miss the bigger picture, and casual flex is often the focus of blame.
Informally permitted flexible-work options (casual flex) may perpetuate the stigma that such arrangements are code for a staff's lack of commitment to their job and company. Not surprisingly, this occurs because, without a formal work-flexibility policy, chances are that the company hasn’t thought through how such a scenario would mesh with its culture, how to smartly manage it and how to support it.
Companies should do just that, however, because a formal policy requires them to look in the mirror and acknowledge that employees have lives outside of work -- not such a bad thing.
What's more, one-third of workers worldwide feel stressed about work-life issues, according to a study by Ernst & Young about work-life challenges. And flexible-work policies that are merely informal may cause other systemic problems: A Boston University study found employees at a Boston consulting firm faking their 80-hour work weeks over fears that asking to use flexible-work options would cause negative reactions from management.
These fears were well founded, it turns out. Employees who faked 80-hour workweeks were given excellent performance reviews, while those who openly asked for flexibility were negatively reviewed, even though they worked the same number of hours as their faking colleagues. That sort of scenario undermines trust and confidence in working relationships, to say the least,.
So, aside from being duped by employees who (selfishly!) want to work fewer than 80 hours a week, why should employers care about formalizing flexible work programs? There are at least three reasons, described below.
1. Turnover is costly.
What’s the actual cost of turnover? New hiring for entry-level positions costs companies between 30 and 50 percent of those employees' annual salary. Mid-level positions cost upwards of 150 percent. And high-level and specialized positions cost up to 400 percent, according to Talent Management.
Seventy-two percent of people interested in career change, moreover, say they would definitely change careers to find better work flexibility. And thirty-nine percent have turned down a promotion or not taken or quit a job because of a lack of flexible work options. Clearly, losing talented, capable employees because of a lack of formalized flexible work is bad business.
2. The talent marketplace is more competitive.
When the job market brightens, people start searching. According to a May job market report from the Department of Labor, “More employees quit than at any time since 2008”; “Job openings in March  were at the second-highest level since 2001”; and “2.78 million people quit their jobs in March, the most since April 2008.”
This kind of churn is a key indicator that the job market is improving, because professionals feel secure enough to search for other opportunities.
Employers who want to compete for the best talent need to offer in-demand programs, chief among them, flexible-work options. In a survey of over 1,500 professionals about flexible work, 82 percent said they would be more loyal to employers with such options.
3. Formalized flexible work is a huge benefit for companies.
Companies with formalized flexible-work policies reap several benefits, including cost savings, productivity gains and employee retention.
Cost savings: It’s estimated that companies can save, on average, $11,000 annually for every full-time worker who works from home. Aetna has saved between 15 percent and 25 percent of real estate, and related costs, through its remote work policy.
Productivity gains: Business strategist Christina Comaford, who helps executive-level professionals improve performance, tracked her clients over three years as they worked flexible schedules from home, half a day to two days per week.
She found a 20 percent-to-47 percent weekly increase in time spent on high-value activities, due to reduced distractions; and a 73 percent-to-97 percent increase in employees' ability to influence outcomes, due to their having more time to thoughtfully craft communications.
To put a number on it, as a 2014 Harvard Business Review article did, companies with official remote work policies allowing at least three days of at-home work each month reported at least a 10 percent revenue growth over the previous year more often than companies without formal policies.
Employee Retention: Several studies have shown that formalized flexible work helps businesses retain employees. Seventy-two percent of employers in one study said that telecommuting had had a positive impact in their retention rates.
In another, 53 percent of telecommuters said they were not considering leaving their employers in the next 12 months, compared to 46 percent of in-office workers. At Aetna, the annual voluntary turnover for employees who worked at home was 2 percent to 3 percent, compared to companywide turnover, at about 8 percent.
And a Stanford University study reported that at a company it studied, implementing telecommuting reduced turnover by 33 percent.
Given these findings and anecdotal worker comments, casual flex seems to be untrackable by management, misaligned with company goals and apt to pit workers against one another in an undefined system.
Formalized flex,on the other hand, is measurable, goal-oriented and executed in a way that supports companies' overarching business plans and bottom line. Surely, then, there’s really only one clear choice for smart companies.
Sara Sutton is the CEO and founder of FlexJobs, an award-winning, innovative career website for telecommuting, flexible, freelance and part-time job listings, and founder of Remote.co, a one-stop resource for remote teams and companies, and the 1 Million for Work Flexibility initiative. She was named as a Young Global Leader (class of 2014) by the World Economic Forum for her work in technology and the employment fields. Sutton is a graduate of UC Berkeley and currently lives in Boulder, Colo. Sutton is also the creator of The TRaD Works Conference, dedicated to helping companies leverage the benefits of telecommuting, remote and distributed teams.