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Flexibility without strings attached

There is an old saying that can often be heard on the side lines of rugby fields across New Zealand . . . “Make the ball available”. The saying implies that if the ball is free to be used by the team members the game will flow and be more exciting and enjoyable for both the players and spectators. This old saying may also hold true for the utilisation of organisational flexible work practices. Recent research has indicated that employees must feel free to use organisational flexible work policies that are formally available to them.

Feeling free to use flexible work policies
Formal flexible work practices alone may not be enough to create job flexibility, and thus, enhance the integration of work and personal life for employees. For instance, flexible work policies designed to influence employee flexibility may not be applied consistently and in some cases employees may fear that the use of a particular policy will generate reprisals (e.g., their future chances of promotion or career advancement). Consequently, employees must feel free to use the organisation’s flexible work policies without negative consequences to have a positive impact on their ability to balance work and personal life.

New research
Results from a survey of over 700 office based employees in an Australian work setting indicate that perceived usability (feeling free to use) of flexibility work practices is a key aspect in balancing their work and non-work responsibilities. In a series of follow up focus group interviews employees provided some salient statements as to what perceived usability of flexibility policies meant to them.

What employees said
Focus group attendees felt “a culture that encourages the use of flexible work schedules is important”. If employees felt the organisation actively promoted the use of work/life policies they were more likely to participate in the programs. “My boss makes every effort to meet my flexible hour requests and this helps, it’s just part of the job and most people use them”.

Employees provided direct comments how negative career consequences can result from utilising flexible hour schedules, and this can impact their usage of specific policies, ultimately limiting the ability to balance their work and non work life. “What’s the use of the policies they have around here if using them is going to impact my future promotion”.

“It’s all about access for me; I need to know that when I want to use office facilities or company resources they are available”. This type of comment was common from telecommuting employees working from home. Employees stressed that access to company resources when operating on flexible hours could impact their productivity and consequently they may not opt to utilise these options.

What does it mean for organisations?
Formal organisational flexible work policies matter to employees, but they must not come with strings attached. Managers must attempt to create a culture where the utilisation of flexible work schedules is encouraged. This will take time and training of supervisory staff will play a big part in building a constructive work/life culture.

Access to resources, especially for telecommuting staff, helps their satisfaction at work and at home. Removing obstacles so staff can easily assess key resources and office facilities when required is also important.

What does it mean for employees?
If balancing your work, personal and family life is important to you, find an organisation that understands this. Not easy? Well, at least try and find a supervisor who understands your needs and that trusts you to do your job – whether you are in the office for 50 hours a week or not! Employees will play their part by contributing to organisational performance and hopefully gaining a better balance between their work and non-work life.

Dr Jeremy Hayman, Auckland University of Technology (New Zealand).