New Research: Flexibility Versus Face Time
July 8, 2013 Editor 0
When Yahoo! ended the company’s telecommuting option for employees early in 2013, and Best Buy followed suit a week later by terminating its groundbreaking, decade-old flexible work program, Results Only Work Environment (ROWE), they joined a growing trend among organizations trading flexibility for face time. Prior to Yahoo!’s decision, Bank of America had drastically cut back on their popular My Work program that used flexible scheduling and telecommuting centers to help employees find a work environment and schedule that made them most efficient. And Zappos, Amazon’s online retailer, also recently scaled back their flexible work arrangements.
In an age when technology enables us to work in a coffee shop just as easily as a cubicle, these dramatic reversals in access to flexible work arrangements in favor of face time—especially at e-commerce companies—drew contentious debate. Arguments addressed all angles of the debate: the rationale for these decisions, the merit of “presenteeism,” the impact of telecommuting on productivity, the implications of eliminating flexibility for working parents, and consequences for the future of work. Reactions from all sides have been emotionally charged, and unending, signaling the deeply personal nature of this debate.
But despite all of this discussion, in the absence of hard data, many armchair opinions persist about flexible working arrangements, specifically with respect to who offers them, who uses them, and how important they are to attracting and retaining top talent.
To examine this common wisdom, Catalyst recently surveyed 726 high potential employees—MBA graduates around the world working full-time in both for-profit and non-profit firms across industries—about their experiences with, and perceptions of, flexible working arrangements. Their answers were revealing.
Flexible working arrangements are no longer the exception.
Despite all the attention that Yahoo!, Best Buy, and others have received recently for doing away with their flexible work arrangement policies, our research shows that they are in the minority among organizations today. Among our sample of high potential employees, 81% reported that they were currently working at a firm that offers flexible work arrangements of some kind. In addition to telecommuting, this includes flexible arrival or departure, flex time, compressed work weeks, reduced work/part-time, and job sharing. And this is true for both global and local organizations of all sizes and in both the for-profit and non-profit sectors. Flexible work options are in fact the rule, and not the exception, at organizations today.
Women and men use flexible working arrangements to the same extent — but men usually choose options with more face time.
Contrary to popular belief, our research revealed that women and men report using most flex options to the same extent throughout their careers. But this is only true for flex time and flexible arrival and departure—the flexible work options that do not adversely impact face time. We did find that women were significantly more likely than men to telecommute—working outside of the office where they don’t have traditional face-time requirements—over the course of their careers. So while men and women are equally likely to use some flex work options, women are more likely to telecommute, which could unintentionally be creating a talent drain in companies by denying these women access to influential networks, senior-level sponsors, and advancement opportunities. As Joan C. Williams, founding director of the Center for Work-Life Law at the University of California, Hastings College of the Law, said in a recent New York Times article, “informally everyone knows you are penalized for using” flexible work arrangements. “I invented the term ‘flexibility stigma’ to describe that phenomenon.”
Availability of flexible working arrangements is critical for organizations to maximize their talent pool.
Much of the debate around the termination of flexible work options centered on the rationale behind the decision. Both Yahoo! and Best Buy cited the importance of face time to successful collaboration and innovation, two elements deemed critical to turning these struggling organizations around. Yet our research shows that this move has unintended consequences that could stall their progress. We found that access to flex options impacts career aspirations.
High potential employees without access to flex options are less likely to aspire to the top.
And women working at a firm without flex work options were more likely to downsize their aspirations—a finding that remains true when comparing them to men working without flex options as well as women working at firms with flex options.
Clearly, lack of access to flexible working arrangements damages high potential employees’ career aspirations, and is especially harmful to women’s aspirations, impacting the number of women raising their hands for stretch assignments and promotions.
Offering flexible working arrangements is critical for organizations to maximize their talent pool and become employers of choice for high potential employees throughout the pipeline. Most competitors already offer flexible working arrangements; there are negative consequences for those that don’t. Organizations need to decide if increased face time—or increased flexibility—is really in their firm’s best interest. Catalyst’s flexibility research can help leaders determine the best options for enhancing productivity, employee engagement, and organizational change in their company.
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