How far will higher education institutions bend in giving faculty and staff more control over their work schedules? A growing body of evidence suggests that work/life benefits including flexible work arrangements may be the best low-cost strategy in the coming decades for keeping employees satisfied, loyal, and motivated while on the job.
According to the Society for Human Resource Management's 2007 Benefits Survey, "As other benefits such as health care and retirement benefits become more difficult to guarantee to all workers due to rising costs, more emphasis may be put on work/life balance and flexibility to offset the dissatisfaction that reductions in other benefits could bring about."
Kathleen Christensen founded and directs the Program on The Workplace, Work Force and Working Families at the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, which has for the past decade played a vital role in creating and supporting a range of work-family scholarship. A clear gap still exists between employee demand for, and the availability of, flexible workplace benefits, notes Christensen, adding that nearly four out of five American workers want more control over their work schedules and arrangements, according to the foundation's studies. "This desire cuts across age, gender, and income levels," she adds.
Flexibility for All
Research from AARP and other sources suggest that while a majority of baby boomers anticipate working beyond age 65, most do not want to or plan to work full time or year-round. Many colleges and universities that understand the value of retaining access to this transitional worker segment have already begun implementing phased retirement programs for faculty.
But it's not only older workers who will begin to place greater demands on employers for flexible workplaces. The SHRM survey suggests that while work/life balance will grow in importance as a recruitment and retention tool for workers of all ages, the benefits offered will increasingly be most influenced by women and younger workers, since these two segments are most concerned about work/life balance and will also comprise the majority of the workforce in the coming decade.
For colleges and universities in particular, younger women faculty may present the biggest challenge. Much of the Sloan Foundation's research points to a loss of human capital when highly educated mothers exit the workforce for lack of career-continuous and part-time work arrangements. Christensen acknowledges the added challenge of implementing flexibility within higher education institutions, where work arrangements for faculty are largely governed separately through the provost and faculty senate.
Her program at the foundation has spent significant time during the past five years supporting research of faculty needs with regard to flexibility. "Not surprisingly, we've found that while women are completing degrees at the same or higher rates as men, fewer women are likely to take faculty positions, often because they cannot see how to pursue both a university academic career and a family," says Christensen. For those who do take positions, female faculty are less likely than their male faculty counterparts to be married or to have children or as many children, adds Christensen. "Women faculty are consciously engaging in avoidance behavior in which they fear facing a bias if they have too many family demands," says Christensen.
Progress is being made, notes Christensen. "In the past several years we have seen a growing awareness that the traditional tenure track career no longer fits a diverse and changing academic workforce." The foundation, in partnership with the American Council on Education (ACE) and Families and Work Institute, introduced an awards program several years ago to recognize institutions that are advancing family-friendly practices for faculty that include reducing workload, extending the tenure track time line, allowing for leaves for different periods of time, or working part time on a transitional basis. This partnership is intended to encourage all higher education institutions to foster flexibility in their institutions. One outcome of the partnership is an ACE report entitled An Agenda for Excellence: Creating Flexibility in Tenure-Track Faculty Careers.
While at first glance such measures might appear costly, institution leaders also understand the large investments they have made in many cases to bring faculty on board and the value of keeping them in place, says Christensen.
Yet, having policies on the books does not necessarily mean organizations have useful flexibility practices or that employees feel free to take advantage of them, notes Christensen. Employers must also instill a culture of flexibility where employees feel free to use these benefits without repercussions, she argues. "Where face time remains the focus as a measure of productivity, employees are unlikely to take advantage of flexibility options available to them."
Another faulty assumption made by employers is to view flexibility as merely a perk or an employee accommodation. In truth, employers gain considerably in terms of boosting employee productivity and morale. A report by The BOLD Initiative (Business Opportunities for Leadership Diversity) entitled Flexible Work Arrangements: A Productivity Triple Play highlights case studies of 10 companies from various industries that conducted pilot tests of a team-based approach to flexible work arrangements. In many cases, when teams were given the freedom to determine when, where, and how to accomplish their work, productivity and performance were enhanced while project cycle time and the need for overtime or additional staffing resources were reduced.
"Based on this and other data, we are now starting to see a shift in the conversation from flexibility as a personal accommodation for individual employees to a strategic business tool for enhancing recruitment, increasing employee engagement, and improving performance," says Christensen.
Flexibility for Fitness
Other surveys and research have begun exploring the connection of flexibility to reduced absenteeism and employee health. A study published in December 2007 in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine by lead author Joseph Grzywacz of Wake Forest University School of Medicine explores the effects of workplace flexibility on health behaviors of employees. The study's premise: Those who perceive that they have flexibility in their work lives will exhibit healthier lifestyles through greater frequency of physical activity, participation in health education and stress management programs, healthy sleeping habits, and other positive lifestyle choices.
The study reviewed health-risk appraisals from employees of a large pharmaceutical company recognized as a national leader in family-friendly work practices. Those surveyed included the full range of employees—from executives to support staff to warehouse workers—tracking changes in behavior over a one-year period. In fact, overall results did indicate that nearly all health behaviors taken by the employees were associated with their perceptions about flexible options available to them.
Christensen cautions that while many have noted a likely connection between workplace flexibility and effective health-promotion programs, to date there has been only modest systemic research to support this theory, and more studies are needed. However, if a strong connection can be made between providing workplace flexibility and improved employee health and behavior, employers will have to take notice because of the very real opportunity for reducing employee health costs, says Christensen.
The annual CCH Unscheduled Absence Survey survey has for the past 17 years measured the rate, cost, and reasons associated with workplace absenteeism in the United States across industry sectors. Findings from the 2007 survey reveal that 66 percent of employees who called in sick at the last minute were in fact taking time off to deal with personal or family issues, including stress. Direct payroll costs and lost productivity associated with unscheduled absences are only part of the story. The survey notes that presenteeism—the flip side of absenteeism where employees show up for work sick or not fully engaged because of nonwork-related distractions—carries additional, often hidden costs for employers.
One red flag raised by the 2007 CCH survey came from this finding: 79 percent of employers fail to recognize how the changing workforce demographics—most notably, retiring baby boomers and an onrush of millennials—might affect the work/life balance or absence-control programs that they currently have in place. On a concluding note the report suggests that a new generation of employees with a significantly different outlook requires organizations to act now to address the diverse expectations of young employees as well as older workers who plan to remain in the workforce.
Free to Care
While women will comprise the larger percentage of U.S. workers in the coming decades, men in generations X and Y may begin to bridge the gender gap with regard to valuing work/life benefits. The SHRM 2007 Benefits Survey report notes that not only is child care a role that has become more acceptable for men, but men are nearly equally affected by adult care responsibilities. The report cites statistics from the National Family Caregivers Association and the National Council on Aging, respectively, indicating that 44 percent of an estimated 54 million Americans with care-giving responsibilities are men and that by 2020, as many as 40 percent of American workers might be caring for their older parents. "With both men and women pushing for more flexibility, companies will be under much more pressure to provide it in an equitable way," the report concludes.
Christensen is convinced that issues of adult care will present the next big work/life challenge for employers. The Sloan Foundation's supported research indicates that at least one in four employees currently have some level of responsibility for adult care. This care may take a variety of forms, whether managing a parent's finances, researching in-home care options, or providing actual physical care to family members, says Christensen. While focus has been on elder care, long-term care may also take the form of a child or returning veteran son or daughter with a severe physical or mental disability for which the burden of care may go on for decades, notes Christensen. "Given the changing structure of families and an increasingly tight labor market, those who will provide care will be those who are in the workforce," says Christensen. "Addressing the needs of employees to provide adult care will become a major work/life issue for employers in coming decades."
Karla Hignite, principal of KH Communication, is editor of NACUBO's HR Horizons; e-mail: email@example.com.
The following Web sites offer a sampling of sources for further research regarding workplace flexibility.
Through its Workplace, Work Force and Working Families program, the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation plays a vital role in developing work-family scholarship and supporting effective workplaces that meet the needs of working parents and older workers. In 2003, the foundation launched its National Initiative on Workplace Flexibility to make flexibility a compelling national issue. Among the foundation's numerous funded projects and research initiatives are the Sloan Work and Family Research Network and the Center on Aging and Work/Flexible Work at Boston College.
The Families and Work Institute is a nonprofit research institute that studies changes to the workforce, workplace, family, and community. When Work Works, a project of Families and Work Institute, is a nationwide initiative to highlight the importance of workforce effectiveness and workplace flexibility as a competitive advantage in the global economy. Among the resources available is Making Work "Work": New Ideas from Winners of the Alfred P. Sloan Awards for Business Excellence in Workplace Flexibility.
Georgetown University's Workplace Flexibility 2010 supports development of a comprehensive national policy on workplace flexibility at the federal, state, and local levels.
The National Clearinghouse on Academic Worklife at the University of Michigan Center for the Education of Women provides resources to support promising best practices and policies for faculty career flexibility.