Is Your Company Offering False or Real Flexibility? 

“Every form of employee appreciation has been cancelled. There are no raises or bonuses. Work is being packed onto skeleton departments because all of the ‘fat’ has been trimmed. Employees are burning out.”

“Trying to give 100% to my job during work hours and 100% to my kids for their schoolwork has been impossible. Both my work and my kids’ education have suffered from that.”

Pay me for the hours I work. My hours have been cut, but I still need time to accomplish what my employer needs. I am being exploited under the guise of we all need to pull together to see this through.’”

“There is a lack of empathy (at work.) The response we get is to just figure it out and get it done.”

These are some of the comments of the more than 1,500 parents who have participated in the Mom’s Hierarchy of Needs anonymous pandemic study since March. it’s clear that parents are struggling to care for their kids and careers. Overwhelmingly, they need real flexibility at work. 

And in the wake of Covid, people’s priorities have changed. Most don’t want the old normal. And organizations that learn how to model flexibility, in all the ways that honor people’s full lives, will retain employees when this crisis ends. To do that, however companies must offer real — not false — flexibility.

I’ll be talking about this during “Replacing False Flexibility With Real Flexibility at Work,” a TLNT webinar on Wed., Feb. 3. But in the meantime, here are some important points to ponder about the role that flexibility should play at work.

Stopping False Flexibility

When conditions change in an organization — a new strategy, less revenue or profits, etc. — a company rewrites the rules. It often requires employees to be “flexible,” but it rarely gives people reasonable options around working different hours, forgoing a bonus, or relocating. That’s false flexibility.  

Many employers are asking for the impossible, that people continue to do the same work, in the same way, despite not having access to the same resources. They’re telling people how important their mental health is, while booking back-to-back meetings. They’re saying that the company is “family-friendly,” yet schedule staff meetings at 8 a.m. or managers sending email requests late at night. Such actions poison the very notion of flexibility.

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Meanwhile, when people have children, aging parents, illnesses or loss, they need flexibility, too. But traditionally, employees aren’t extended any grace for their human fragilities at work. Flexibility has been one-sided in most organizations, setting up for the company to win and the employees to quietly accept. 

In other words, organizations aren’t really asking people to be flexible. They’re merely bending and stretching them to suit company needs.

An Opportunity to Reset

Covid has changed mental, emotional, and physical availability for the entire workforce. This creates a huge opportunity to restore trust, which begins with reexamining how the work gets done. But what does that really mean?

  • Expectations. The usual performance review criteria (i.e., key performance indicators or goals) probably don’t fit the Covid-environment. So it’s a good idea to rethink priorities. Does an internal status report each week make sense anymore? Would a short video or email message, perhaps monthly, be sufficient? Are the financial targets still the best way to measure employee performance? Can you remove busywork? Individual, team, and group goals must be viewed through a fresh lens. As one surveyed parent shared, “I’ve experienced more work anxiety since working from home, and work has gone from 8-5 to 24/7. It’s a permanent, ever-present fixture in my home life now.”
  • Synchronous availability. Let’s talk meetings now. How often and for what duration do people need to be available in real-time? Productivity expert Alexis Hasselberger said, “When I bring a team together and ask them, ‘How quickly should email or Slack be answered?’ we go around the room and you’ll get 10 wildly different answers.” Most organizations don’t have guidelines for this, which is often left to a manager’s personal preferences. But the volume, duration, and frequency of meetings have a profound impact on employees, especially caregivers. It’s therefore good practice to sanction meeting-free breaks companywide to give everyone the deep work time they crave.
  • Location. If being onsite isn’t essential to the job, what role does the “office” play? Countless surveyed parents have indicated that they’ve been forced to remain onsite even though the nature of their work doesn’t require it. Remote work is allowing people to oversee their children, homes, parents, or partners. Although the difficulties of working from home surrounded by family are real, the alternative for many has been to leave the workforce altogether.
  • PTO and paid leave. People are hoarding their vacation time in anticipation of uneven or absent childcare. In most communities, if a child has a cough or cold, they cannot return to school, daycare, or a babysitter for 14 days. Each time. One surveyed parent asked for “safe childcare or guarantee that I could take time off and not lose my job.” therefore, create flexible and pervasive paid leave policies that allow employees to care for themselves or loved ones. Plus, with the ongoing threat of Covid, paid leave allows people to make safer choices. Many are weighing their income or health-insurance loss against showing up for work. Indeed, 80% of parents cite they’re doing “terribly” or “not as well as usual” as caregivers to themselves. The drain of working without breaks has led to burnout.  

It’s been a prolonged period of anguish, and many caregivers feel like they’re doing “terribly” at everything (as workers, parents, and caregivers to themselves.) One surveyed mother shared, “I’m working full-time in a hospital while my husband is working full-time at home trying to take care of our 5- and 3-year-old boys. No one is getting the time and attention that we need from each other right now.” It’s situations like this that have led millions of caregivers, primarily women, to leave the workforce since the pandemic began. 

Organizations must do better. HR leaders have a real opportunity to replace false with real flexibility. Join me to learn more about the new rules of flexibility and how to make them work within your organization. Register here for an interactive webinar, “Replacing False Flexibility With Real Flexibility at Work, on Wed., Feb. 3, at 2 p.m. ET. 

Leslie Forde uses data to help Employers become Allies @ Work to caregivers. She has used research to inform growth and innovation strategy for over 20 years. She’s held brand management, product marketing and business development roles in consumer technology and products, market research, media and publishing companies.

Most recently, she held leadership positions at Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, Care.com and CSpace (an Omnicom market research agency.) She began her brand management career at Bausch & Lomb and Xerox.

Her writing about parenting, motherhood and equity has appeared in The Washington Post, SlateParents Magazine and her website, Mom’s Hierarchy of Needs, among other publications.

She’s been quoted in Fast CompanyUS News & World Report, HerMoneyFairy God BossLivingly, and several other outlets.

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