February 03, 2023
Flexibility was once considered impossible for certain jobs and industries, but now it’s in high demand from both corporate and frontline employees. While economic instability could leave employees with less leverage, one thing will not change—workplace flexibility can be a cost-effective driver of well-being. Understanding the implications of flexible work on business priorities and employee well-being will help employers embrace its advantages and mitigate inherent challenges.
Three Need-to-Know Insights About Flexible Work and Well-being
- 1 | Flexible work impacts well-being in positive and negative ways: Understanding how flexible work arrangements affect employee well-being, from social connectedness to financial security, will help health and well-being practitioners implement organizational policies and practices to optimize advantages and mitigate disadvantages.
- 2 | Flexibility is possible for all employees: An equitable approach does not mean all employees will have the same flexibility. Instead, employers should consider what flexible work arrangements are the right fit for different positions. For example, if a job requires physical presence, flexible schedules, leave benefits, schedule swapping and/or changes to attendance policies are likely better options than remote work. Increasing flexibility for all employees enhances well-being and diversity, equity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB).
- 3 | The future of work is flexible: A 2022 global survey of over 10,000 employees from the U.S., Australia, France, Germany, Japan and the U.K. found overwhelmingly that employees want flexibility in where and when they work. Seventy-eight percent of employees indicated they want location flexibility, and nearly all—95%—want schedule flexibility.1
Types of Flexible Work Arrangements
- Remote work: Working full time from a location other than a company office/workplace.
- Hybrid work: A combination of working in a company office/workplace and from another location.
- Flexible hours: Autonomy in when employees start and end their days, often meeting a certain number of hours in a week and implemented with core hours (e.g., set times, such as 10 am – 3 pm, when everyone is working).
- Schedule swapping: Trading scheduled shifts with colleagues to ensure coverage when an employee has a personal conflict.
- Compressed work weeks: Working fewer days but the same number of hours per week (e.g., 4 10-hour days).
- 4-day work week: Often a 32-hour workweek with one day off, at full pay.
- Part-time work: Typically working 35 hours or less; the number of hours per week can vary by employers.
- Job sharing: Two people, employed part time, divide and complete work that would otherwise be done by one full-time employee.
- Self-scheduling: Allowing employees to choose which shifts they want to work.
Beyond remote work and flexible schedules, employers should leverage the power of leave and well-being benefits to offer employees needed flexibility. For example, in the U.S., unlimited or flexible time off, PTO (in lieu of traditional sick and vacation buckets) and floating holidays give employees more choice to take time off for a variety of reasons important to them and their families. Likewise, choice is becoming an increasingly important feature of well-being benefits, shown by the shift from incentives to lifestyle spending accounts. Moreover, choice in the work that employees do and autonomy in how it gets done is a driver of job satisfaction and overall well-being.
How Flexible Work Positively Impacts Well-being and Work
Time to manage and care for physical and mental health issues and engage in healthy activities, such as adherence to medical appointments and treatment, exercise, or simply getting more rest/sleep, which can result in lower health care expenses and absence.
Prevention of communicable disease transmission.
Work/life harmony and the ability to manage personal and family needs from childcare to chores, as well as improved relationships with spouse/partner, children, friends and extended family.
Less stress and burnout.
Increased DEIB, especially among marginalized groups.
Financial savings, particularly in countries where is it uncommon to provide allowances for transportation and meals. Savings may be related to commuting time, dry cleaning, not eating out and potentially the option to live in areas with lower costs of living.
Fewer traffic accidents and environmental impacts.
Greater productivity, job satisfaction, autonomy and likelihood of feeling supported by supervisor.
Well-being and Business Challenges of Flexible Work and How to Overcome Them
It cannot be ignored that flexible work may create roadblocks to well-being and business needs. When designing workplace policies and practices, HR and benefit leaders need to be aware of these challenges and proactively mitigate them through new initiatives, benefits and practices. This section discusses five common challenges and employer actions to address each:
- Disruptions to Communication, Collaboration and Innovation
- Blurred Work/Life Boundaries
- Proximity Bias
Challenge 1: Loneliness
It can be difficult to create and maintain meaningful relationships in a remote environment, when flexible schedules lead to less time together (in person or virtually). As a result, loneliness is one of the biggest flexible work challenges. Moreover, younger and new employees are at the greatest risk.
Actions to Address Loneliness in a Flexible Work Environment
- Start meetings with a networking opportunity, personal check-in and/or open time to discuss personal activities, families/friends, vacations, etc.
- Establish a virtual water cooler to promote informal conversations with chat platforms and/or intranet sites.
- Encourage employees to set up regular catch-up calls or coffee Zooms with colleagues important to their network. Employers may also consider using tools that arrange random employee meetings to break down silos between employees from different business units.
- Offer a variety of social, team-building activities (e.g., virtual and in-person activities, happy hour or coffee break, book club, cooking class, lunch-and-learn). If the organization is remote-first, occasionally bring employees together in-person for major and/or social events.
- Facilitate random acts of kindness campaigns and/or peer-to-peer recognition opportunities through virtual platforms.
- Give employees a “get-together” stipend (e.g., $25/month for meals, coffee or activities with coworkers).
- Have a robust remote onboarding plan, including setting up meetings with a new employee and key individuals outside their immediate team, assigning a virtual onboarding mentor or buddy, bringing a cohort of new employees together and offering group learning and social opportunities.
- Send well-being or care packs to remote employees.
- Give employees opportunities to volunteer in their communities through company-sponsored events and/or paid leave or flexible schedules.
Challenge 2: Disruptions to Communication, Collaboration and Innovation
Remote work and flexible schedules can result in less collaboration and more communication pain points. Moreover, employees in a flexible work environment are more likely to spend collaboration time with their strong ties, even though collaborating with weaker ties is more likely to provide access to new ideas and information.2
Actions to Effectively Communicate, Collaborate and Innovate in a Flexible Work Environment
- Equip teams with the right collaboration and communication tools (e.g., project management software, video conferencing, brainstorming/real-time collaboration tools, chat) and develop norms about how and when to use each.
- Make collaboration and innovation a strategic priority, employee performance metric and priority when recruiting or promoting employees. Likewise, recognize and celebrate those who collaborate and innovate effectively while embracing flexibility.
- Have regular one-on-one check-ins between employees and managers.
- Create an internal portal where leaders and employees can share business problems and opportunities and pose solutions to drive collaboration and innovation.
- Develop norms about camera use. Use cameras for certain key meetings, such as team meetings, one-on-one’s or performance reviews, and when discussing a challenging topic or delivering difficult news. If conference rooms cameras do not show participants’ faces, encourage employees to log on with laptops so remote employees don’t miss out on nuances of the discussion. At the same time, give employees a break from always being on-camera by establishing norms, such as no-camera Fridays, designation of certain meetings as no-camera meetings and/or having leaders model being off camera.
- Define core working hours and be transparent about availability and schedules by using shared calendars and status indicators on chat platforms.
Note: Since building authentic, meaningful relationships with peers is important to communication, collaboration and innovation, implementing the solutions above associated with preventing loneliness are also paramount to addressing this challenge.
Work from Anywhere on the Rise
A work-from-anywhere approach is growing in popularity. It gives employees flexibility and freedom to work and live (permanently or temporarily) wherever they would like and employers an excellent tool to recruit and retain talent across the globe. Working from anywhere also has significant compliance implications that employers need to understand. A few examples include impacts related to taxes, payroll, workers’ compensation, disability, leave, privacy and data security. Additionally, employers will want to consider how changes in work location impact benefits, such as health care and retirement.
Challenge 3: Blurred Work/Life Boundaries
Flexibilities can positively impact employees and their work-life harmony by allowing for more time to spend with family and friends and address personal life needs. Still, a common pitfall of flexible work, particularly remote work, is blurred boundaries between work and life. Left unchecked, remote work can lead to an always-on, 24/7 workday.
Actions to Promote Work/Life in a Flexible Work Environment
- Establish core hours in which meetings will be held. When possible, find mutually convenient times across time zones. Moreover, encourage employees to choose between a meeting and an email thoughtfully. If the content is complex, requires collaboration and/or has multiple decision-makers, a meeting is generally better. If the content is simple, an update or doesn’t warrant an agenda, an email is likely the right choice. Sending a video recording to share information that does not need to be discussed in real time is also an alternative to a meeting that offers employees flexibility.
- Allow employees to self-schedule or swap shifts so instead of missing a work shift (and associated income) when a conflict arrives, employees can simply work another time.
- Shorten meetings to 45/50 minutes or 25 minutes to give employees built-in short breaks.
- Ensure that hourly employees have their schedules at least 2 weeks in advance to allow them to make plans for family care, health appointments and other work/life needs.
- Encourage conversations about how to work smarter and get more done in less time, whether by eliminating meetings, using new tools, changing processes or using temporary contracts to ease the burden of some tasks.
- Encourage employees to:
- Create separate work and home spaces; although not feasible for everyone, being in an office or creating a separate space that is only used for work can be a physical reminder of work/life boundaries.
- Establish a daily habit to indicate the workday has ended (e.g., changing outfits, shutting down the computer, stepping outside).
- Communicate with family about the need to work without disruptions.
Challenge 4: Proximity Bias
Proximity bias, the tendency for people in positions of authority to give preference to those closest to them, can be exacerbated by flexible work arrangements and can lead to inequities in developmental opportunities, exciting projects, inclusion in decision-making and promotions. Additionally, remote work and flexible hours can lead to fewer formal or impromptu mentorship opportunities.
Actions to Proximity Bias in a Flexible Work Environment
- Discuss proximity bias, what it is and how to address it in leadership and manager trainings.
- Ensure that all communications, company news and announcements are shared in writing in a central place that all employees can access.
- Establish criteria and practices to ensure that performance ratings are objective, quantifiable and informed by multiple sources.
- Ensure that remote employees are eligible for the same awards and recognition received by their office-based peers and celebrate the success of remote workers similarly through emails, chat channels and team/organizational meetings.
- Have regular one-on-one check-ins between managers and employees, ideally with cameras on.
- Develop a remote mentorship program and/or train leaders and managers on best practices for mentoring in a flexible work environment.
- Encourage managers and senior leaders to visually utilize flexible work arrangements to demonstrate their commitment.
Challenge 5: Engagement
Engagement is a top priority and challenge for health and well-being leaders, and flexible work adds a new twist. Employers need to thoughtfully consider how to provide an equitable benefit and experience for remote and onsite employees and how flexible hours may impact engagement in health and well-being activities.
Actions to Engage Employees in Well-being
- Invest in virtual well-being supports and solutions that are available to remote employees and allow those with schedule flexibility to engage when it works best for their schedules. This can be done by:
- Making physical activity opportunities from fitness classes to company-wide wellness challenges available to all employees through virtual campaigns, flexible or paid time to participate, online classes, subsidies/reimbursements or lifestyle spending accounts.
- Offering a variety of digital lifestyle and condition management services/apps to address chronic conditions from diabetes to musculoskeletal conditions.
- Providing virtual health coaching services.
- Offering biometric screenings through a voucher program and/or at-home screening kit.
- Offering a variety of virtual mental health care, such as apps, self-assessments, virtual therapy, counseling or coaching.
- Providing online financial well-being assessments, planning and/or coaching services.
- Mirror on-site fitness activities, challenges and physical health events with a virtual option; for example, if an employer is hosting a 5K at its headquarters location, the company should encourage teleworkers to walk/run a 5k in their local community.
- Use engagement platforms to create a one-stop shop for all employees to understand available benefits, from physical health opportunities to work/family benefits.
- Encourage employees to take well-being breaks (e.g., stretching, walking outside, meditating or doing yoga) regularly throughout the day. Even better, prompt them to do so with pop-up reminders.
- Encourage remote employees to use time saved by not commuting to engage in healthy activities.
- Offer virtual ergonomic assessments of remote workspaces; if the results indicate a need, provide remote employees with an ergonomic chair and/or other equipment.
- Recruit remote employees to be wellness champions and/or mental health ambassadors.
- Educate employees about the financial savings of remote work, and encourage them to allocate those savings, if feasible, to a 401k, HSA, 529 College Savings Plan and/or another savings account through an automatic payroll deduction.
- Provide employees with necessary equipment to work remotely and/or offer a stipend for equipment and furniture.
- Offer financial flexibility by giving employees access to earned income in advance of paychecks.
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- 1 | Future Forum. Leveling the playing field in the hybrid workplace. January 2022. https://futureforum.com/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Future-Forum-Pulse-Report-January-2022.pdf. Accessed November 31, 2022.
- 2 | Yang, L., Holtz, D., Jaffe, S. et al. The effects of remote work on collaboration among information workers. Nat Hum Behav. 2022; (6)43–54. https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-021-01196-4. Accessed November 31, 2022.
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