Why Flexible Work is a Win-Win for Employees and Firms.

I was recently reading a post from a friend Emily Field about “myth to bust” which said, “It’s mostly women who want—and benefit from—flexible work.” She then pointed out that both men and women list flexibility as a “top 3” employee benefit and something that is important to their company’s success. Emily then cited additional data showing that both genders value flexibility, please see post here.

The Business Case for Flexible Working Arrangements

This reminded me of some work that I had done years ago looking at the question of whether flexible work schedules actually benefited companies through higher engagement and better retention. The case for flexible work was quite easy to make on the corporate real estate side, as it meant a smaller physical footprint was needed for the same size workforce if, for example, 20 percent or so were not there on any given day. Not wanting to be outdone by my peers in corporate real estate, I looked for a way to make the Human Resources case for flexible work.

The Link Between Flexibility and Employee Morale

Showing a correlation between employee morale and perceptions of flexibility in their job was easy enough, but as we know, correlation does not mean causation, and it is hard to quantify the value of higher morale. (I once did an analysis that was able to link employee morale to customer satisfaction and higher revenues, but that will be for another day.)

So, what I did know was that different departments had rolled out flexible work options differently, with some being very accommodating and others not really allowing any flexibility. In addition, I had survey data about employees’ perceptions of their department’s openness to flexibility

Challenges in Evaluating the Impact of Flexible Work

So, all I had to do was compare the attrition rates between the departments to see if those with greater flexibility had lower attrition rates, right? Well, no, there are all kinds of other potential reasons why one department might have a higher attrition rate. One big potential issue is that the labor markets for the various departments are quite different. At that time, the tech sector was extremely hot, so high turnover there might just reflect the intense war for talent at the time. Also, the company might pay people at different percentages of the mean market compensation based on the role’s importance to the business strategy.

A Personal Story: Flexibility as a Retention Strategy

So, I was searching for some way to control for all these potential alternative explanations, and one day it hit me. A very good friend of mine had just had her second child and was trying to figure out what work schedule she should have when she came back to work. Her boss said, no worries, we really value you as an employee, we will figure it out.

I may be misremembering a bit, but I know she tried various options: compressed schedule, part-time schedule, working from home certain days, etc. It took about 6 months before she landed on the right schedule that worked for her and her new family. I thought to myself, ‘If her boss had not been so accommodating, she might have left.’ That is when it hit me, perhaps it is the case that women benefit more from flexible work schedules because they tend to be the primary caregivers of children (tend to be, not in all cases).

"The Analysis showed that those departments with the greatest flexibility had significantly lower than expected attrition for women...."

Further Insights and Analysis on Gender and Flexibility

So, I did what came naturally, I dug into the academic literature to see if this insight might just be what I needed to solve the case of flexibility and employee retention. It turns out there was a good deal of literature about working women still tending to be the primary caregivers of children, but that I had missed the other end of that equation, which was that they were also more likely to be the primary caregivers of their elderly parents.

I now had what I needed to do the analysis on the impact of the introduction of flexible work. The analysis showed that those departments with the greatest flexibility had significantly lower than expected attrition for women versus those with less or no flexibility, using male attrition as the control.

Conclusion: The Strategic Advantage of Flexible Work

This means greater flexibility makes it easier for everyone to stay engaged in the labor force. For companies, this means it is easier to retain and promote women, which leads to greater diversity. While the traditional gender roles of who is the primary caregiver for children and parents may be changing and trending towards more parity, this analysis at that point in time demonstrated that flexible work can be a benefit for both male and female employees, but is also a winning strategy for the firm as a way to retain great talent and help ensure a diverse workforce, particularly retaining women who can then be promoted to more senior roles.