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December 2, 2009 | Volume 3 | Number 10
December 2, 2009
By Matthew J. Grawitch, PhD, Larissa K. Barber and Patrick Maloney, Saint Louis University
Work flexibility has become a hot-button issue in the U.S. workplace. Numerous blogs are written on the topic, a host of researchers study the issue, and various consulting firms and advocacy groups promote the concept. At the broadest level, it sounds like work flexibility simply means employees get to work when and maybe even where they want. However, this is not necessarily the case. At a more specific level, there are at least four primary types of work flexibility practices that employers can develop. Each comes with its own benefits for employers and employees; but, in order to maximize these benefits, organizations must carefully select the right mix of work flexibility practices given their unique context.
These four types of workplace flexibility are not necessarily mutually exclusive. Employees can have flexibility both in when they work and from where they work. Taken to the extreme, this can become the foundation of a Results-Only Work Environment (ROWE). This emerging form of personnel management, which gives employees complete discretion as to when and how their work gets done, has been linked to reductions in unwanted turnover and increases in productivity. With a variety of options available to enhance workplace flexibility, organizations should determine which practices would best meet their needs and the needs of employees and then design programs to utilize those approaches.
The benefits of the four types of workplace flexibility depend on the context in which those initiatives will be implemented. Employees have to value them and have the competencies and willingness necessary to use them. The organization has to ensure that its infrastructure, work processes, and culture will support them. For example, some of the specific organizational factors that may prevent effective implementation or utilization of work-life initiatives include work-life/family culture (e.g., Allen, 2001; Mesmer-Magnus & Viswesvaran, 2006; Thompson, Beauvais, & Lyness, 1999), perceived organizational support (e.g., Casper & Buffardi, 2004; Witt & Carlson, 2006), justice perceptions (e.g., Greenberg, Roberge, Ho, & Rousseau, 2004; Rousseau, 2001), and quality of communication (e.g., Ryan & Kossek, 2008).
Even though a work flexibility initiative may be appropriately designed for the organization’s environment (e.g., fits organizational needs and capabilities), there may be additional constraints due to attributes of a particular job or workgroup. These constraints may include co-worker and supervisor support (e.g., Blair-Loy & Wharton, 2002; Ryan & Kossek, 2008) and work demands and workload (e.g., Blair-Loy & Wharton, 2004; Butler, Grzywacz, Bass, & Linney, 2005; Grzywacz, Casey, & Jones, 2007). Interestingly, these factors are more likely to affect the use of work flexibility practices than other types of work-life practices (e.g., child or dependent care resources; Blair-Loy & Wharton, 2002).
Flexible work arrangements are a critical element in many psychologically healthy workplaces. When considering the Psychologically Healthy Workplace framework, work flexibility practices relate specifically to work-life balance, but there are also areas of possible synergy with the other four practice areas: employee involvement, employee growth and development, employee recognition, and health and safety.
Organizations interested in creating a flexible work environment have a variety of options available to them. It is really matter of tailoring the specific type(s) of flexibility to employee needs, the constraints of specific jobs, and the organization’s culture and structure. In addition, work flexibility practices can relate synergistically to other types of psychologically healthy workplace programs and practices. Hence, organizational decision makers themselves have a lot of flexibility in how they choose to utilize flexible work arrangements.
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