How Can We Design Flexibility to Meet Different Employees’ Work-Life Balance Needs?

How Can We Design Flexibility to Meet Different Employees’ Work-Life Balance Needs?

In a meta-analysis of recent studies on flexible work policies, professors Ellen Ernst Kossek and Brenda A. Lautsch looked at whether these programs had consistent benefits for all types of workers: e.g., hourly or salaried, managerial or professional, and high- or low-income. Discussing their findings at the Harvard Business Review, Kossek and Lautsch register their dismay that in most of these studies, these distinctions weren’t even explored. “Despite the many studies on the topic,” they write, “it is rare for scholars to consider occupational differences across workers in the need for, and experience of, work-life flexibility.”

That’s a problem, the authors underscore, because employees in different roles and circumstances diverge significantly in terms of access to flexibility and other work-life balance programs, with varying consequences for their quality of life and work:

What exactly do we know about how kinds of work-life flexibility benefit employees in different jobs the most? First, not every employee faces the same work-life challenges, has access to the same types of flexibility, or experiences outcomes from them in the same way. For example, retail, food, and other workers in hourly jobs that pay at or close to the minimum wage often struggle to get sufficient predictable (and sometimes enough) work hours to care for their families. They would benefit from being able to control their work hours through flex time and having greater control over schedules and time off, as well as the ramping up of hours when it fits their lives. Yet these are the workers who rarely have access to control over when they work.

In addition, access to other work-life flexibility practices that affect the ability to take time off and the continuity of work, like paid sick and parental leaves, is critical to these hourly workers. It is also largely unavailable to them.

These authors’ point about how employees differ in their work-life challenges and the kinds of benefits they need resonates with something we’ve observed in our research at CEB, now Gartner, over the past several years and that is coming into ever greater focus in our ongoing work: Work-life balance is a broad category of need, for which no HR department can possibly design a one-size-fits-all solution.

Last week, we hosted Genentech’s Head of People Analytics Chase Rowbotham for a webinar. One of the projects he described was an analysis his team did to understand the effects of commute times on employees’ likelihood of leaving. Based on those findings, Genentech is rolling out a new “Working Flexibly” philosophy and toolkit, among a series of initiatives geared toward improving the employee experience. It’s intentionally a philosophy, not a policy, precisely because of this variation in what working flexibly can and should look like for different segments of the workforce. (CEB Corporate Leadership Council members who missed the webinar can watch a replay of it on our member site.)

Read more