This post is part two in a three-part series; in part one, we covered the benefits flexibility provides for employees and employers. Read part one. []

Flexibility in the workplace is not about whether people can touch their toes, but it is not about employees working wherever and whenever they want while taking unlimited time off. Employees and employers alike need to understand that some industries and job functions do not or cannot provide the flexibility Canadians are seeking, including where people work or when they work. For those in retail, transportation, food and beverage, or healthcare, it is unlikely that flexibility for where employees work is an option for most workers.

Flexibility for when people work is limited by the industry as well. According to employees in our 2022 research into Canadian workplace culture, industries that are least likely to offer flexibility for when people work are education, agriculture, natural resources, and healthcare. It is not hard to imagine how difficult or impossible it may be to offer employees flexibility when they work in these industries. For example, consider the options for flexibility available to a food server versus a computer programmer. 

So with those crucial caveats out of the way, let’s dig into what flexibility truly means in the workplace. Flexibility means different things to different people, and as discussed, it changes from industry to industry as not all jobs and industries can offer the same flexibility. 

We read all the recent white-papers, case studies, and blog posts we could find about modern flexibility in the workplace and boiled the ocean using Ockham’s razor to categorize flexibility into four distinct groups. Let’s learn about these different types of flexibility and what they mean in the workplace.

When We Work

For organizations to provide flexibility for when their people work, they first need to consider if that’s possible. Many businesses have regular business hours, and for others where they don’t have business hours, their people often need to be aligned with the times their customers are available. I often consider the incredible people I’ve had the chance to work with from India, where they are constantly working through the night to serve North American customers on their schedule.

Flexibility for when we work gets night owls excited and leaves parents feeling less pressure. We imagine working when we are most productive, whether first thing in the morning or when it’s dark outside and quiet around the home. However, flexibility for when we work can encompass many more options than those that come up first. 

The hottest trend around when we work these days is the four-day workweek. A four-day workweek is experiencing some great support and implementation in several businesses where it makes sense. Many of these organizations shift the final 8-hour day to the other four days creating 10-hour workdays. Most would be willing to put in two hours a day for an extra day off each week. Some more surprising organizations provide a four-day workweek for 32 hours, often referred to as a compressed schedule. Recently, a bill to make the 32-hour workweek standard in California was defeated, but the fact that it was considered shows progress.

Providing employees with flexible start and end times can yield significant gains in employee productivity, allowing employees to prioritise time-sensitive parts of their life outside of work. There are a few industries where employees already enjoy serious flexibility around their shifts and have forever. These industries have flexible work shifts for employees, including retail, food and beverage, and services. Finally, many employees would prefer part-time work as they may have a small business or family needs that mean they need to work part-time.

Where We Work

Flexibility around where we work has most of us imagining working from a stunning beach while enjoying some shade and a cold beverage. Others picture being able to work from home for part of the week or moving farther from the city. Providing flexibility for where people work includes providing options for team members that prefer to work from an office rather than their homes, whether that means a subsidy for a co-working space or the (re)opening of official office space. 

We must consider what we may lose when distributed teams have fewer opportunities for connections and conversations in passing, at lunch, and after work. These moments often result in impactful business solutions, increased comradery, and social benefits for employees.

Additional options for where we work include scenarios like working from home part-time for two or three days a week. Ultimately, flexibility depends on the industry, the customers, and working across time zones. However, flexibility for where we work is a relatively straightforward option that makes sense for many organizations and individuals.

Expanded Leave Options 

Leave options vary worldwide, with many nations only expanding parental leave to men in recent years. The reality around leave is that the options an employee has access to heavily depend on the industry they work in, their seniority, and their organization’s workplace culture norms for leave. 

The most well-known leave option is parental leave, where new parents receive time off. In addition, many organizations provide leave options for new parents of adopted children. Some organizations even provide leave for employees when a new fur baby (like a dog or a cat) joins their family. Finally, caregiver leave is available to those who care for family members, relatives, or close friends with compelling needs who require caregiving.

Traditionally associated with academia, sabbaticals are now available to long-tenured employees at organizations we may not have previously expected, including banks and technology companies like Adobe, Facebook, Microsoft and Shopify. This year, Linkedin even added a “Career Breaks” feature to share sabbatical and career break stories with prospective employers. However, according to SHRM’s 2019 benefits report, sabbaticals remain an uncommon benefit, as only 5% of organizations offer paid options, with 11% offering unpaid sabbatical options.

The final and newest option for expanded leave is the option for unlimited paid time off (PTO), aka unlimited vacation. There is much debate raging around unlimited PTO and the advantages and disadvantages of this flexibility option. It can create feelings of inequality among employees when some use it, and others don’t. On the other hand, finance teams often love it because they no longer have to manage and hold the liability of banked vacation time. 

“Unlimited PTO means unlimited PTO,” says Felicia Daniel, HR Manager at TINYpulse – which offers unlimited PTO. She shares that a reasonable amount is four weeks a year while employees can surpass that benchmark but should be careful to keep it reasonable. Beware of the signs that you could be taking too much time off. Employees should know if they’re taking too much time off if they’re not fulfilling their job responsibilities. Employees with unlimited PTO tend to take less time off than those with a traditional time-off policy. In a study by Namely, an HR software company, the average number of days off taken by employees under unlimited PTO is 13 per year, which is two days less than employees under a standard PTO package.

Leave options tend to vary around the world with many nations only in recent years expanding parental leave to men who are parents. The reality around leave is that the options an employee has access to are heavily dependent on the industry they work in, their seniority, and the norms of workplace culture for leave. 

Health and Wellness

An area of flexibility that varies significantly by industry and seniority is flexibility for health and wellness. For our purposes, we include all kinds of health and wellness flexibility in this group, including:

Health and wellness flexibility comes down to the nature of the work we are doing and the organization’s culture. Organizations that can provide these types of flexibility usually do, while those that are not empowered, mainly through strict rules for middle management, might have a much harder time. For example, in industries and departments where measuring employees’ productivity and impact is relatively easy, organizations may provide more flexibility and use productivity measures to hold employees to productivity standards. 

Flexibility is the most important factor for many prospective employees. Organizations that are in tough competition for talent should consider what they can offer prospective employees to make them more competitive while fitting their industry and organizational culture. Flexibility is also something that relates very closely to trust. When leaders trust their people, they are more likely to provide flexibility; when they don’t, they are less likely. Fostering an environment of openness and trust between employees and leadership will help ensure that flexibility is something that can pay big dividends and improve productivity for both leaders and employees at any organization.

Watch this space for the third and final part of our series on flexibility. Then, we’ll dive even deeper into the insights and data from our recent research around what Canadians report on flexibility in the workplace.

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