What is workplace flexibility?
Chances are, this isn’t the first time you’re hearing about the growing need for flexibility in the office. But sometimes it’s hard to know what people mean when they talk about it, if only because workplace flexibility has become something of a buzzword.
Career expert Alison Doyle defines workplace flexibility as a “strategy of responding to changing circumstances and expectations,” and one that both employers and employees can adopt.
From the perspective of the employer, flexibility in the workplace might mean giving your employees the autonomy and freedom they need to get their work done, without enforcing a rigid set of rules for the sake of enforcing them. This autonomy can apply to many different facets of employee life–such as giving workers the opportunity to own their projects, for example.
In this article we’ll look specifically at the benefits of flexibility as it applies to workplaces and work schedules.
Why workplace flexibility matters
It saves money…
One of the biggest and most enduring challenges that employers face, year after year, is employee retention. In 2019, U.S. workers quit their jobs at “the fastest rate on record” since 2010, according to a report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, reported CNBC.
This can get expensive fast. Hiring a replacement can cost up to twice the employee’s annual salary, according to Gallup.
And while COVID-19 might have impacted the job market, this impact has not automatically translated into higher retention rates. According to a survey from the Harris Poll, turnover remains a major issue for Canadian employers even amid rampant unemployment.
In fact, job insecurity is actually linked to an increase in turnover intentions, according to a 2018 study of the global workforce.
So what’s the secret to improving employee happiness, boosting performance and keeping the best and brightest around? The answer may lie in the topic of this article: workplace flexibility.
…by keeping employees happy
It’s not hard to imagine why your employees might crave a less rigid work schedule. Who wouldn’t want to be able to head in and out of the office–or in the case of a remote work situation, in and out of Slack–whenever they please?
Workplace flexibility is tied to the idea of work-life balance, the belief that employees should be allowed to have a life outside of work, and that work shouldn’t dominate this life outside of work.
And sure enough, there’s a growing demand for at least some degree of flexibility–particularly among younger workers. About 76% of millennial employees said they would be willing to take a pay cut for flexible working hours, according to a survey from Qualtrics and Accel Partners, reported CNBC.
This has clear implications for employee retention. According to a FlexJobs survey, 80% of respondents said they would be more loyal to their employer if they had flexible schedules.
How to increase flexibility in your own workplace
At this point, you don’t need further convincing about why it’s important to begin introducing more flexibility into your work culture. But how would you go about actually doing this?
Here are the basics.
1. Choose the approach that works for you
When it comes to flexibility in the workplace, it’s easy to think that it applies only to letting employees come and go as they please. But flexibility doesn’t necessarily mean a total lack of structure. There are many different approaches to flexible work schedules you can learn from: There’s no need to reinvent the wheel.
HR firm Robert Half has a great breakdown.
Types of flexible work arrangements
- Flextime: This is likely the first approach to pop into your mind, and is about giving employees the freedom to structure their own workdays and weeks–often including when, where, and for how long they work.
- Compressed workweek: Using this approach, employees get a shorter workweek but typically still work the same number of hours. For example, an employee might work four 10-hour days instead of five eight-hour days. It still adds up to a 40-hour week, but the extra day off provides some added flexibility.
- Job sharing: This is less common, but can still be effective. With job sharing, two part-time employees share the job of what would traditionally be one full-time employee. This is ideal for candidates who are qualified for a particular position, but would prefer the flexibility of a part-time job.
- Remote work: Telecommuting or remote work involves arrangements where the employee spends some time–or, even all of their time–working from home or another location that isn’t the office.
- Permanent part-time arrangements: With this arrangement, an employee fills a part-time role that doesn’t require a full-length workweek.
For arrangements like flextime or the compressed work week, a time tracking app like Toggl Track can help employees track and report their hours worked.
But time tracking can do so much more than just replace the traditional timesheet. A team that focuses on achievements rather than hours logged might use Toggl Track to spot inefficiencies in the workflow, or predict how long certain projects might take.
Flexibility is all about a willingness to adapt to circumstances. You can choose to adopt all or none of the above approaches. The key is to find the approach that works for your team and your goals.
That brings us to the next point.
2. Understand your team
In addition to understanding the different types of flexible work, it’s also important that you understand your team.
“Not all jobs are conducive to time or place flexibility. However, most have certain duties that are amenable to being done at alternate times and places other than the office,” explains Scott Behson in an article for Harvard Business Review. But as Behson suggests, it’s important to go through the steps and see how you could offer more flexibility for all of your employees.
Additionally, if you’re eager to figure out how to be more adaptable and flexible at work, you also need to go beyond understanding roles to understanding what your team members want as individuals.
Consider asking your employees what they are hoping to gain from workplace flexibility:
Do they want the ability to work remotely? A shortened workweek? Unlimited PTO?
And finally, while it might be tempting to send out a company-wide memo and call it a day, a sole announcement might not be enough to create a truly flexible workplace culture–along with the happy employees this promises.
Sociologists Lindsey Trimble O’Connor and Eric Cech warn against the possibility of “workplace flexibility bias,” where employees believe that working flexibly will harm their careers. This seems to defeats the purpose of having a flexible workplace. It’s important that employees feel empowered to actually take advantage of flexible workplace policies.
Those are important things to know before figuring out how you can use flexibility to truly boost happiness in the office.
3. Encourage breaks
Breaks aren’t often discussed in the same breath as flexible workplace policies. But maybe they should be, because occasional breaks can contribute to a culture of adaptability and flexibility in the workplace.
But according to a study from Future Workplace (now Workplace Intelligence), only 33% of employees take breaks at work.
“One idea to encourage breaks is to have a break room or to force employees to leave their desk during lunch by providing free food or incentives,” advises Future Workplace’s Dan Schwabel in a Forbes article.
Barring total flexibility, you could lengthen your standard lunch break so that team members can run errands or take care of personal needs in the middle of the day. This is a good compromise for workplaces where total flexibility is not feasible.
But regardless of the degree of flexibility, it’s important to give your employees the encouragement and support to set their work aside, even for a quick five-minute break.
Breaks can increase productivity. They also give employees a chance to rest, recharge, and connect with their colleagues.
4. Limit your meetings
One big concern when it comes to increasing workplace flexibility is that it might lead to less time working. But that’s not always the case.
One way to increase flexibility and ensure there’s enough time for focused work is to reduce the amount of mandatory meetings. At one workplace the employees used Toggl Track to show their managers how much time was being devoted to meetings.
Whatever the method, however, decreasing the number of scheduled commitments can empower employees to use the time as they best see fit.
To decide which meetings must stay and which must go, it can help to run through a mental checklist that asks the hard questions for you, such as whether the meeting in question is urgent, and whether every invitee actually needs to be there.
5. Encourage personal interests
Workplace flexibility is closely linked to work-life balance.
Encouraging your employees to pursue their hobbies and passions might not seem to have anything to do with workplace flexibility.
But recognizing that your team members have lives outside of their workplace is important for creating a workplace culture that values work-life balance and flexibility.
And in any case, it never hurts to show your employees that you care about them as people–not just as employees.
Over to you
From improved retention and increased engagement to raising morale in the workplace, there are plenty of reasons to incorporate more workplace flexibility into your company culture.
Fortunately, it’s easier than you might anticipate. The whole point of flexibility is that it recognizes that one size does not fit all. See how these five tips fit into your workplace culture. You might notice, along with an increase in workplace flexibility, an increase in employee happiness and productivity as well.
Kat is a freelance writer specializing in career, self-development, and productivity topics. She's passionate about being as efficient and effective as possible—much of which she owes to her 114 words per minute average typing speed. When her fingers aren't flying on the keyboard, she loves to bake, read, hike, or tackle yet another DIY project around her home.