Journal Issue: Work and Family Volume 21 Number 2 Fall 2011
Does Access to Flexibility Make a Difference in the Workplace?
Findings from the 2008 NSCW indicate that employees want flexibility; that access to it varies, with more advantaged employees being doubly advantaged in that they have greater access; and that overall usage is modest. To what extent do the NSCW data address the larger issue: does access to flexibility matter—both for employers and for employees? Though correlations do not indicate causation, we believe our findings can lead the way to other studies that do assess causation. Several studies are now under way to assess employee outcomes such as job engagement, retention, physical health, and well-being before and after employees are offered greater access to supportive supervisors and flexibility (such as the studies funded by the National Institutes of Health and conducted by the Work, Family, and Health Network).11
To explore whether access to flexibility makes a difference in the workplace, we used a global measure of access to thirteen types of flexibility included in the 2008 NSCW.12 We conducted a series of analyses to determine how access to flexibility affects four workplace outcomes of interest to employers and employees: job engagement, job satisfaction, job retention, and employee health. Our focus was on access to, rather than use of, flexibility, because analyses reveal that access has a greater impact on workplace outcomes than usage. It appears that flexibility functions like an insurance policy—just knowing that flexibility is there for them, should they need to use it, appears to be reassuring to employees.
One workplace outcome about which employers are deeply concerned is job engagement—which they see as a proxy measure for productivity and business success.13 As figure 2 shows, flexibility and engagement are positively linked.14 For example, 30 percent of employees with high access to flexibility are highly engaged in their jobs, compared with 19 percent of those with moderate access and only 10 percent of those with low overall access. Similarly, 39 percent of employees with low access to flexibility have low overall job engagement, compared with 23 percent of those with moderate access and 14 percent with high access. Interestingly, the relationship between high, moderate, and low access to flexibility and moderate job engagement is less systematic, a finding that warrants further investigation by other researchers.
Job satisfaction is also positively linked to access to flexibility (figure 3).15 Sixty percent of employees with high access to flexibility are highly satisfied with their jobs, compared with 44 percent of those with moderate access and only 22 percent of those with low access.
Overall, according to the 2008 NSCW, 17 percent of employees are very likely and 23 percent are somewhat likely to make a concerted effort to find a new job in the coming year. As the national economy slowly recovers, many employers know that they need to retain their best talent to thrive. Among employees with high access to flexibility, 71 percent are very unlikely to try to find a new job in the coming year, compared with 61 percent of those with moderate access and 45 percent of those with low access (figure 4).16
The inhospitable nature of an inflexible work environment has led some mothers to leave successful jobs in a number of fields and return home to raise their children. In Opting Out? Why Women Really Quit Careers and Head Home, Pamela Stone chronicles the experiences of women who quit their jobs because of a one-size-fits-all work environment and the unwillingness of corporations and managers to help women create other options.17 Only a few of these women had originally planned to leave the workforce to raise children; most had expected to continue with their careers while raising their families, but found it very difficult to do. Phyllis Moen and Patricia Roehling similarly call attention to how the mystique "that Americans give their all to paid labor in order to ‘make it'" is at odds with the expectations of women today. In their book, The Career Mystique, they illuminate the clash between the expectation that employees will devote their entire lives to their employer and the reality of life among dual-earner families today.18
As escalating health care costs take a rising toll on employers' bottom line, the overall health of the U.S. workforce is in decline.19 On average, less than one-third of employees (28 percent) say their overall health is "excellent"—a 6-percentage-point drop since 2002. For that reason, the link between employee health and access to flexibility (figure 5) is of particular concern, particularly because of the cost implications. Among employees with high access to flexibility, 39 percent report being in excellent health, compared with 29 percent of those with moderate access and only 20 percent of those with low access. Again, however, these relationships are complex and warrant further investigation.