Why Bosses Don’t Like Work Flexibility and How to Change Their Minds

Briana Dodson works on her computer at The Penny Hoarder's headquarters in St. Petersburg, Fla.
Briana Dodson, TPH social media channel manager, works on her laptop at The Penny Hoarder headquarters in downtown St. Petersburg, Fla., on Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017. Heather Comparetto/The Penny Hoarder

Here at The Penny Hoarder, I’m incredibly grateful to have a good deal of work flexibility.

We’re allowed to work remotely once a week, and even on the days we’re in the office, there’s no punching in and out to record every minute we’re there.

We also often write about work flexibility — whether it’s juggling multiple gigs, working from home or logging hours from a cool co-working space.

One of the major benefits of work flexibility is that it helps workers create situations in which they can be most productive and live their best lives while earning a living.

Yet many employers still struggle with the idea of work flexibility because it differs from traditional workplace practices.

Oct. 17 marked National Flex Day, a time to reflect on what it means to have flexible work arrangements. 1 Million for Work Flexibility, a national initiative supporting flexible work, hosted an online panel where professionals talked about the current state and future outlook of flex work.

The Changing State of Flexible Work

Matt Wiley and Dana Sitar have a video conference over Google Hangouts.
Matt Wiley, TPH branded content editor, and Dana Sitar, senior writer/newsletter editor, have a meeting through Google Hangouts. The Penny Hoarder offers work flexibility to its employees, including work-from-home days. Tina Russell/The Penny Hoarder

Brigid Schulte, director of the Better Life Lab and The Good Life Initiative at New America, said that in the 1990s and early 2000s, flexibility was seen as an accommodation for women, mothers and caregivers — a viewpoint that still exists today.

“That’s led to a real sense of stigma around flexibility — that lesser workers will take it, or that somehow flexibility means less work or that you’re less committed,” she said.

Fortunately, the tides are changing as others start advocating for flexible work options.

“Millennials — both men and women — [are] saying that they want to have full, meaningful lives and full, meaningful careers and being adamant about getting them,” Schulte said.

Another panelist, Andy Cuneo, senior communications manager at Polycom, also talked about the effect millennials have on workplace flexibility.

“They’re the ones that are going to dictate the way our technology’s going to be used in the workplace,” he said. “They’re going to be the ones that are really going to shape the way the workplace looks like.”

Cuneo said advances in technology that help people communicate and collaborate will increase work flexibility and support a more mobile workforce.

He said Polycom did a survey earlier this year and found that 83% of millennials use video collaboration to stay in touch with a colleague and that 72% like having a work-life balance in varied locations.

The Challenges of Flexible Work

One of the concerns some employers have with flex work is the misconception that untethering employees from their desks could result in decreased productivity.

That’s quite the opposite, Schulte noted.

“There have been studies that have shown in certain instances — certainly in the United States — that if you have a formal flexible schedule or even an informal, under-the-radar flexibility, it tends to lead to longer work hours,” she said.

Workers are sometimes challenged with not knowing when to set a stopping point for themselves, Schulte said.

“Yes, flexibility is wonderful, but it has a real potential to lead to work creep,” she said.

Another panelist, Sara Sutton Fell, founder and CEO of FlexJobs, said many white-collar workers are already putting in some form of remote work — checking emails before bed or working at home over the weekend — which generally isn’t acknowledged.

Another challenge of flex work is that it can look entirely different to different workers.

“For example, we’ve yet to discover a way where an emergency room nurse could work from home,” joked panelist Ian Reynolds, director of WorkLife and Community Programs in the Office of Work, Life and Engagement at Johns Hopkins University and Health System.

In that case, flexibility can be implemented when it comes to setting schedules, he said. There isn’t one set way to approach flex work.

What Will Make Flexibility More Available to Workers?

Panelists agreed that measuring the impact of flex work is important going forward.

“The more we have statistics… that will help make the case,” Schulte said.

Sutton Fell said FlexJobs and WorldatWork conducted a study a couple years ago in which they interviewed 350 large North American companies. They found that while about 80% offered some form of work flexibility, only 3% tracked the return on investment.

“It highlights a massive problem with why employers aren’t adopting work flexibility more readily, given all the benefits that have been talked about,” Sutton Fell said.

Having concrete data to support the assertion that flex work is good for business could lessen employers’ hesitation about making flexible work options available.

Legislation may also be a way to bring about greater change.

Reynolds recalls how the federal government amended the Fair Labor Standards Act in 2010 to require employers to provide break time and space for lactating women to express milk, which led Johns Hopkins to establish over 25 mother’s rooms across their campuses.

“There was a real impetus to make that program a success — and that was the law,” he said. “We need something like that for flex.”

Sutton Fell agreed.

“We need more legislation when it comes to remote work and flexibility and for the freelance economy,” she said. “It will help address [these] future of workplace changes that are happening.”

Nicole Dow is a staff writer at The Penny Hoarder.