As we saw in last year’s report, employees crave flexible work environments that allow them to better balance their lives and greatly improve their sense of fulfillment. This year, a majority say all workers deserve the same level of freedom. Of course, one size of autonomy does not fit all roles (factory workers can’t do much work outside the factory), but regardless of discrete limitations, more flexibility is possible. And making it more equitable empowers leaders and employees and fosters satisfaction and engagement. To create a work culture in which people thrive, equitable flexibility belongs at the top of the priority list where it can strengthen connection and meet a range of diverse needs.
The pandemic forced organizations to explore workplace flexibility in new ways and, in most cases, we saw it benefit both the employee and the business. Yet despite positive outcomes, many employers are now returning to rigid routines. Old rules die hard, and some managers still worry people will take advantage of the freedom they receive, spend excessive time on personal matters, and soon expect more. For these supervisors, providing flexibility means giving up control, abandoning traditional leadership practices, and surrendering long-held biases. It can, understandably, be a fearful proposition when faced with constant pressure to perform and meet deadlines. However, such fear is eclipsed by the fact that workers who are necessary—and committed—to business success now expect flexibility in their jobs.
In case there was any question, most employees are not looking for complete autonomy. On the contrary, their primary requests are accommodations to resolve common conflicts, such as seeing a doctor or dentist during the workday, working from home when a child is sick, or performing a task in a new way. This said, flexibility encompasses more than when or where someone works. It includes having a voice and a measure of influence over what work they do and how they do it.1
When organizations see employees as people—and not just a means of production—flexibility appears reasonable, even smart.
And what do organizations get in return? In short, loyalty, innovation, and access to more talent. Flexibility helps employees feel seen and valued, and it builds excellent workplace cultures that lead to better outcomes. When people are satisfied with the level of flexibility at work, our research finds 568% improved odds they’ll promote their organization to others as a great place to work and 384% improved odds they’ll want to stay with their organization another year.
This chapter explores how employers can provide flexibility in an equitable way that acknowledges limitations and balances them by focusing on empathy and connection. Because flexibility must be available across the organization to ensure all employees can thrive—in and out of the workplace.
“Every job deserves some flexibility. It cannot be viewed as a scarce or privileged resource. True flexibility aligns employers and employees to achieve mutual gain in meeting both performance and work-life needs.”
—Ellen Ernst Kossek, Patricia Gettings, Kaumudi Misra, Harvard Business Review
For Employees to Feel Seen, Valued, and Trusted, They Must Have Some Level of Flexibility at Work
More than just life balance, workplace flexibility is about having a sense of governance over our work and our time. Employees want some choice in how they accomplish their work, some autonomy over their time at work, and some time for interests and skills outside of work. Traditionally, flexibility has been a perk that employees earned as a reward for doing great work or only given to some types of employees but not others. In today’s workplace, flexibility must be available—and equitable—for everyone.
So, what is equitable flexibility? Our research identifies five contributing factors.
Leadership support. Leaders support employees and show empathy and understanding for their needs.
Organizational support. Organizations empower leaders to give employees flexibility and provide systemic policies and tools.
Employee empowerment. Employees feel empowered to make decisions about their jobs.
Work choice. Employees have some discretion about what work they do and how they do it.
Time management. Employees have the autonomy to manage their workdays.
While people universally want flexibility for themselves, in a remarkable show of concern for their colleagues, 68% feel it should also be available to every employee regardless of role. However, only about half (57%) say their culture supports flexibility in every job.
Predictably, workers in the aforementioned 80% (those with less access to technology and less say in how and where their work gets done) experience less flexibility due to the nature of their jobs. It’s not possible to work on a manufacturing line, drive a truck, attend to a patient, or stock retail shelves from home. However, acknowledging that not every position can enjoy the same type of flexibility, organizations can still find ways to integrate more flexibility into every role. This may require some creativity, but more importantly, it takes an understanding, willingness, and commitment from the organization and leaders. Because it can lead to new ideas, innovations, and process improvements, finding flexibility for every employee can benefit both their experience and business outcomes.
Employees with little or no flexibility in their roles feel their opportunities for personal and professional growth are limited. They also feel less necessary and undervalued and are more prone to burnout and exhaustion. Odds of burnout increase 5x when employees are dissatisfied with the level of flexibility at work.
Employees understand not all roles can accommodate the same flexibility, but they also know when flexibility is possible and not given. Workplace flexibility that appears inequitable can be damaging to key cultural outcomes and lead to higher rates of burnout for the entire workforce. As outlined in the next table, the odds of key outcomes improve when employees perceive flexibility is equitable.
“When I think flexibility, I think not always having to be there right between eight and five. Yes, I’m definitely going to get my work done, but just trust me to do it in the parameters that I need to, because I do have a life also.”
—Focus Group Participant, Office Assistant
Workplace Flexibility Sends Employees a Positive Message
Giving employees flexibility demonstrates that the organization values its people and has confidence they’ll manage themselves to get work done. Employees with high flexibility in their jobs are nearly twice as likely to feel their leader trusts them to get the job done (85% compared to 43% of employees with low flexibility).
Flexibility at work is often seen as a form of recognition, communicating the organization appreciates employees enough to give them a voice and some control over how and when they work:
Giving employees autonomy in how they accomplish their work also improves odds that employees will feel their leaders trust them (+294%).
Likewise, employees with a high sense of flexibility are more likely to:
- Feel seen and valued (4x)
- Feel free to express their ideas and opinions (3.5x)
- Feel a high sense of appreciation (12x)
By contrast, when flexibility is low, it can take a large toll on employee perceptions, as the following data illustrate:
- Likelihood employees feel taken for granted by their leader increases 143%
- Likelihood employees feel valued decreases 75%
- Likelihood employees feel free to express opinions decreases 72%
“Not having flexibility was very frustrating for us. The lack of trust in taking breaks and things like that felt like you weren’t being trusted.”
—Focus Group Participant, Leasing Agent
Workplace Flexibility Can Improve Business Outcomes
The impact of flexibility is just as positive on the organization. According to our research, when employees were highly satisfied with their work flexibility, odds of other important outcomes, as shown in the table, improved.
If organizations want to retain their people, keep them engaged and thriving, and attract new talent, then providing workplace flexibility for all is vital, especially in roles where turnover is high and autonomy can be low.
“What workers need is for their employers to figure out the ‘how’ of flexibility. It will look different within every company, every department, and even at the team level. But every leader owes it to the people they get to work with to find out what kind of flexibility is ideal for their team and how much of that flexibility is possible within the bounds of ensuring the team performs.”
—Stephanie Nadi Olson, Founder and Executive Chair, We Are Rosie
To successfully provide flexibility, organizations must ensure it’s equitable for everyone, supported by leaders, and addresses both when and how employees work.
1. Explore flexibility in all job roles
Flexibility does not need to be the same for every employee for it to be equitable, but every employee needs some flexibility in what they work on, how they accomplish their work, and how they manage their workday. Success will depend on leaders, and leaders must be aware of corporate policies and empowered to tailor flexibility in ways that best fit their team members.
When flexibility extends to all employees, the potential for a positive employee experience does, too. But, as shown in the following table, if flexibility is not perceived as equitable or supported by the organization, the employee experience suffers.
2. Know employees’ unique needs
As previously mentioned, leader support is crucial for equitable flexibility and improves the odds that employees will feel highly satisfied with flexibility in their job by 359%.
Regular one-to-one meetings can be a great way for leaders to better understand their people and discuss ways to increase flexibility. Practices of modern leadership (such as empathy, advocacy, trusting employees, and providing autonomy and connection) help integrate flexibility into the employee experience. Employees who work for modern leaders see a nearly 4x improvement in the odds they will have a high degree of flexibility in their jobs, and leaders who make flexibility a priority have employees who are more satisfied at work.
The next table unpacks how the odds of job satisfaction increase when employees perceive specific types of flexibility and support from their leader.
3. Give employees flexibility with their time at work
Find a way to allow all employees to take time away from work when needed. This can include empowering leaders to adjust work schedules to fit changing life circumstances, providing time for personal appointments and events, setting aside hours for skill building and training, or giving employees opportunities to work from home when possible.
Employees must also feel their leaders support and respect time away from work so they can disconnect in meaningful, restorative ways. This means no pressure to take calls or answer email while they’re out or make up the work with overtime when they get back. This type of flexibility demonstrates trust and helps employees feel their leader cares about them, not just their output.
When people can choose how they spend their time at work or take time away to meet personal needs, the odds of having trust in their leader increase 5x. And when leaders let employees decide when to begin and end the workday, the odds improve nearly 6x.
Furthermore, workers who feel strong support with time flexibility want to stay with their organization longer:
4. Offer employees more than flexible time
Beyond having a say in when they work, employees crave influence on what work they do and how they do it. This is where leaders can provide flexibility in tasks and training, as well as opportunities to take on special projects and participate in leadership development or mentoring programs.
When employees have opportunities and autonomy over their work, the likelihood of engagement soars, as shown in the table below.
Equitable Flexibility—Key Takeaways
Flexibility at work should be available and equitable to all employees.
Providing equitable flexibility helps employees feel trusted and valued.
Leaders should learn their employees’ unique needs and work with them to find a level of flexibility that works for everyone.
Giving employees flexibility in when, where, and how they work will help them feel engaged and want to stay.
Equitable Flexibility Sources
- “Hybrid Workplace,” 2022 Global Culture Report, O.C. Tanner Institute.
- “Workflex and Manufacturing Guide,” Kenneth Matos and Eve Tahmincioglu, SHRM, 2015.
- Work/Life Balance, Careers, USG.com, 2023.
- “Neiman Marcus Group Announces New ‘Corporate Hubs’ Strategy with Goal to Revolutionize the Way the Company Works,” Nieman Marcus Group, July 27, 2022.
- “How Neiman Marcus Increased Hiring and Lowered Turnover During a Labor Shortage,” Danny Parisi, Glossy, February 18, 2022.
Case Study—A Strong Plan for Flexible Scheduling
Building materials manufacturer, USG, regularly evaluates its shift rotation schedules and their effect on employees’ health and sleep. The company also creates schedules that work best for each location, and its Summer Hours Program lets people extend their daily time to take Friday afternoons off.
Workers decide their own breaks, and rather than disciplining them for an unexcused absence, leaders take a collaborative approach: They work with employees to find ways to support their needs. Managers also assign overtime to volunteers, rather than make it mandatory for everyone.2,3
By empowering employees and taking a people-centered approach to workplace flexibility, USG has built a culture where employees can balance their work and personal lives well.
Case Study—The Luxury of Increased Flexibility
Neiman Marcus Group, the luxury retailer, integrates workplace flexibility into their culture through their philosophy, NMG Way of Working. With robust technology in place, associates can work and serve customers from home, in stores, and at distribution centers. The company allows its associates to exercise agency over their time and choose their shifts and locations.
Eric Severson, EVP, Chief People and Belonging Officer, says, “Our Way of Working philosophy empowers our associates to work whenever, however, and wherever to achieve their best results.” Integrating workplace flexibility has led to strong business performance, more productivity and satisfaction among associates, and 20% less turnover in a challenging talent market.4,5