How ‘Flexibility Bias’ Can Hinder the Pursuit of Work-Life Balance

How ‘Flexibility Bias’ Can Hinder the Pursuit of Work-Life Balance

As HR leaders know all too well, it’s one thing to give employees a benefit, and quite another to actually get them to use it. This problem often arises around paid leave and flexibility: An organization will offer ample paid vacation, parental leave, and flexible work options, only to find that employees don’t take full advantage of these options, often because their managers, their peers, or the company culture discourages them. Even if the organization’s policy is generous, employees may fear that using their leave entitlement or working flexibly will make them look less dedicated, cause them to miss out on prestigious assignments, or otherwise hold them back in their careers.

Sociologists Lindsey Trimble O’Connor and Erin Cech examined this phenomenon, which they call “flexibility bias,” in two new studies, the findings of which they detailed at the Harvard Business Review last week:

We show that when employees see workplace flexibility bias in their organizations, they are less happy professionally and are more likely to say they will quit their jobs in the near future. Importantly, the effects of this bias aren’t limited to working mothers. Even men who don’t have kids and who have never taken family leave or worked flexibly are harmed when they see flexibility bias in their workplaces.

We also find that perceiving bias against people who work flexibly not only impacts work attitudes but also follows employees home. It increases their experiences with work-life spillover, minor health problems, and depressive symptoms, as well as leads to more absenteeism at work and worse self-rated health and sleep. These effects occur for working moms, dads, and childless women and men alike. The effect holds across age groups and racial and ethnic categories as well. …

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New Parents Aren’t the Only Employees Who Need Support in Returning to Work

New Parents Aren’t the Only Employees Who Need Support in Returning to Work

As organizations continue to lean on benefits as a key opportunity to differentiate themselves in a competitive talent market, many are expanding the scope and inclusiveness of their parental leave offerings, granting more paid time away from work to employees of all genders who become parents through birth, adoption, and surrogacy alike. This is partly a matter of making benefits more generous overall, but it’s also about signaling the organization’s commitment to values of diversity and inclusion.

Organizations are also paying more attention to helping working parents and caregivers re-enter the workforce after taking time away to care for their children or sick or elderly relatives. These “returnship” initiatives are specifically geared toward supporting women, who are more likely than men to take such career breaks. Caring for others isn’t the only obligation that forces employees to spend extended periods away from work, however; sometimes, it’s their own health.

In a recent story, Glenn Howatt from the Star Tribune highlighted how advances in cancer detection and treatment are improving the health outcomes of patients, but noted that cancer survivors often don’t get much support in returning to work. From the perspective of HR, the management of cancer patients’ absences may seem similar to managing other instances of medical leave or short-term disability. However, employment experts tell Howatt that standard approaches to managing the exits and subsequent re-entries of employees can’t be so readily applied to cancer patients’ situations:

“The length of leave, 12 weeks, is not a lot for people with a lot of cancers,” said Ann Hodges, an emeritus professor at the University of Richmond School of Law. It’s unclear how many cancer patients lose employment because they’re not ready to return to work. But studies show that just 40 percent are back at work within six months. After a year, it’s still just 62 percent. Researchers have also found that loss of income due to illness is a major contributor to bankruptcy — and that cancer patients are more likely to declare bankruptcy.

The emotional experience of fighting and managing cancer undoubtedly leaves a lasting impression on the personal and professional lives of survivors. Employers of cancer patients have the power to decide whether the impression they make on their employees during this time will be positive or negative.

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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.)

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How Managers Can Encourage Employees to Use Their Flexible Work Policy

How Managers Can Encourage Employees to Use Their Flexible Work Policy

Although our research at CEB, now Gartner, has found that organizations with flexible working programs realize an increase in employee engagement and productivity, the stigma against flexible work persists and employees often fear that their colleagues and managers will question their competence or commitment if they ask for parental leave or remote work options.

In a recent piece at the Harvard Business Review, Joan C. Williams and Marina Multhaup offered some suggestions for how to mitigate this challenge. The authors recommended that workforce policies be designed in a way that is wholly inclusive, from parents who have to pick up their children from daycare to employees who have to tend to their sick grandparents. Although people’s reasons for needing flexible work arrangements can differ, they write, organizations should adopt a clear set of principles for managing that flexibility and ensure that it is fairly applied regardless of the reason.

Williams and Multhaup’s ideas for creating an inclusive policy are sensible, but the problem remains that organizations often don’t promote their flexible work policies effectively. In fact, our research indicates that flexible work practices are underutilized even by employees who value flexibility. In order to better enable workers to take advantage of these options, managers need to create an environment where they are not only used, but encouraged.

Here’s how:

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PwC’s Return Policy for New Parents Is a Natural Experiment in Shorter Workdays

PwC’s Return Policy for New Parents Is a Natural Experiment in Shorter Workdays

Last month, PwC rolled out a $45 million investment in its employee wellness program, including a suite of new benefits for working parents, Glassdoor’s Amy Elisa Jackson reported at the time:

  • $1000 bonus to all staff to spend on wellness-related activities;
  • Four weeks of “Paid Family Care Leave” for all partners and staff to care for certain family member with serious health conditions;
  • Eight weeks of paid parental leave for staff of any gender with a new child (currently six);
  • New “Phased Return to Work” transition, with the option of new parents working 60% of hours, at full-time pay, for an additional four weeks following a block of paid parental leave;
  • $25K reimbursement, per child, for adoption (currently $5K);
  • $25K reimbursement, per child, for surrogacy (traditional and gestational) expenses;
  • Pro bono membership to sittercity.com (childcare, housekeeping, pet care services);
  • Six hours of free Eldercare consultation (home assessments, implementation of care, etc.)

These expanded benefits, which according to Amanda Eisenberg at Employee Benefit News will go into effect on July 1, mirror what many other large US employers are doing to make their family benefits more generous and more inclusive. The point of interest here is PwC’s Phased Return to Work program, which the professional services firm says is the first of its kind. Offering this benefit up-front and actively marketing it to employees avoids the trap wherein new parents are afraid to ask for the flexibility they need out of fear of being seen as uncommitted. Closing that loophole was the motivation for Adobe’s returning employee flexibility program, which allows employees returning from at least three months of leave to work a non-traditional schedule for at least four months and requires all returnees to meet with their manager and HR to discuss this option.

Paying employees a full-time salary to work only part-time may sound absurd on its face, but we’ve seen a few other organizations experiment with shorter workdays in recent years. PwC’s policy will be worth watching, as it will provide another data point in how a limited workweek affects employee productivity, particularly among the highly stressed cohort of new parents.

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Work-from-Home Wednesdays? Or Just More Flexibility?

Work-from-Home Wednesdays? Or Just More Flexibility?

Shari Buck, co-founder of the physicians’ social networking platform Doximity, made the case in a Quartz post last week for “work-from-home Wednesdays,” a policy her company adopted a few years ago that, in her opinion, strikes the right balance between the flexibility and work-life balance benefits of a work-from-home policy and the need for consistency and accountability among employees:

There are two reasons that scheduling our WFH day in the middle of the week has turned out so well. The first is that it breaks up the week nicely: two days in the office, one day working remote, and then two more days back in the office. This leads to a consistent workflow that balances a number of planning meetings early in the week, a productive Wednesday working from home, and two equally productive and collaborative days on the tail end of the week.

Additionally, scheduling WFH days on Wednesdays rather than on Mondays or Fridays prevents employees from thinking of them as faux three-day weekends. WFH Wednesday is still a work day after all, and the fact that employees are required to be back in the office on Thursday reinforces accountability. WFH Wednesdays have boosted work-life balance for all of our employees. At the same time, they have kept our business productive and on a path of positive growth for nearly a decade.

For companies that have already determined that remote work policies can work at their organization, this is an interesting idea. Designating Wednesdays as the day for remote work companywide—and shutting down the office to boot—could have some downsides, however.

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Estée Lauder Expands Parental Leave Benefits for All US Employees

Estée Lauder Expands Parental Leave Benefits for All US Employees

As of this month, US employees of the Estée Lauder Companies can take advantage of an expanded range of family benefits, including 20 weeks of paid parental leave for all new parents, regardless of their gender or whether they became parents through birth, adoption, or foster placement. Birth mothers are entitled to an additional six to eight weeks of paid maternity leave, while employees seeking to become adoptive parents can request up to $10,000 in aid for adoption fees. Business Insider’s Leanna Garfield passed along more details of the new policy when it was announced late last month:

Both hourly and salaried employees are eligible, as long as they work at least 30 hours per week and have been with the company at least three months. Before the change, Estée Lauder offered 12 weeks of paid parental leave. The company will continue to offer up to $20,000 per year toward fertility treatments, as well as child or elder care at a reduced rate to eligible workers.

In addition, the company is launching a back-to-work transition program for new parents. As part of this six-week program, Estée will give parents flexibility on where and when they work. For example, a new mom could work from home a few days per week if she chooses, or a dad could adjust his schedule in that he comes in earlier and leaves earlier than the usual 9 to 5. And those who qualify for Estée’s new childcare/eldercare program expend a co-pay of $8 an hour.

Estée Lauder is framing this new benefit offering as a recognition of the fact that not all families are formed in the same way and that employees need more individualized options for starting their own. “We don’t want to dictate what their families should look like,” Latricia Parker, Estée Lauder’s Executive Director of Global Benefits, told Business Insider.

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