Flexibility and the Reluctant Supervisor

Via the Work and Family Blog:

Clearly one of the barriers when it comes to workplace flexibility is the reluctant supervisor. It’s hard enough, they say, to keep track of employees when you can see them! Who wants people coming and going at all hours of the day and “working” from home where you can never see them (and who knows what they’re really doing?)

For many, flexibility represents the unknown, and change. And we’ve known for years that the only people who like change are wet babies.

So it’s always helpful to crawl into their heads and find out what’s really going on, especially if you’re determined to reap the benefits of more flexibility, as is the University of Kentucky. So that University’s “Workplace Flexibility Supervisor Study” was designed to find out what was going on, both in the workplace and in supervisors’ heads.
To get that better understanding, the work-life department surveyed nearly 1,400 people, each a supervisor of at least one employee. By asking 43 different questions, the study set out to find answers to exactly how much and what types of flexibility are currently in use, what motivates flexible supervisors, what are their challenges and perceptions and how well they do at managing those workers. And among those who don’t use flexible work arrangements, why don’t they, and what kinds of education and training would benefit them. The six FWAs in question: Flextime, telecommuting, compressed workweeks, reduced hours or change to part-time, phased retirement and job sharing.

Here are some of the results:

A surprising 46% don’t currently use any form of flexible work arrangements to manage their direct reports. Of those who do, most are female, and those most likely to use flexibility are those who manage the most people. Flextime is most common (92% report users among their staff) with telecommuting a far-away second (37%). No one uses job sharing. Nearly a third (31%) noted an increase in requests, supporting the University’s decision to increase their offerings. Only 15% of supervisors hadn’t received any requests from staff or had received fewer than the previous year.

Why did they use flexible work arrangements? Given a list from which to choose, here’s how it turned out. Helping employees meet their work-life needs was the most highly cited motivator, followed by employee job satisfaction and engagement factors, talent management factors, and then financial reasons. The survey found 83% of supervisors who used flexible work arrangements as a strategy to help their staff manage their work and non-work responsibilities; 78% offered them because their staff had asked for them and/or because they wanted to do the right thing for them; 77% did it to increase job satisfaction and/or improve overall morale and 68% to increase commitment and engagement. Two-thirds used FWAs to increase staff productivity and retention, 62% to manage the workforce effectively and 47% to reduce absenteeism or increase diversity. About a third used them to reduce presenteeism, recruit workers or save money, and a fourth to compete with other local employers.

And the results? Nearly 80% said offering flexible work arrangements improved morale, job satisfaction and work-life fit; 65% said they improved health and wellbeing and 62% saw an increase in productivity and improvement in retention because of introducing flexibility.

When asked about impediments to flexibility, 25% said hours of operation got in the way, 23% said scheduling and the nature of their departments’ work. Factors under direct control of the supervisors included concerns about hours of operation (a problem for a fourth), scheduling (23%) inequity across positions (21%), co-worker resentment and/or administrative hassles (19%).

Of those who don’t use flexibility, most were likely to be male, 55 and over and have six or fewer direct reports. And most (43%) said the reason they don’t offer it was a lack of requests for it; several quotes highlight a number of misconceptions about how to structure and manage flexible work arrangements.

Supervisor training had been helpful, said 25%, and “when asked to choose their preferred method of learning, supervisors overwhelmingly selected remote, computer-based (37%) and webinar (25%) technologies over more traditional face to face (25%) or classroom style methods” (we’ve sent them a password to preview our e-courses).

The good news came in the responses to this question: How important do you believe flexible work arrangements are to your staff, to your department, and to the University of Kentucky? The answers, in order: 97%, 90% and 90%. Those answers predict that UKY will have lots of supervisor support when they encourage more flexibility.

Surveys like this are a wonderful way to help supervisors who have been avoiding change stop and think, and the results will help even the most resistant begin to embrace it.

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