Detail from Les Très Riches Heures du duc de Berry, July, c. 1412-1416 (Courtesy: the Musée Condé, Chantilly)
Ideas for Leaders #567

Companies Must Be Sincere About their Flexible Work Arrangements

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Key Concept

The accepted wisdom is that by helping employees to achieve an optimal work-life balance, flexible work arrangements (FWAs) — theoretically at least — help to increase employee work engagement and commitment to the organization. A new study, showing an inverse relationship between FWAs and work engagement over time, reveals that offering FWAs without a supportive employee culture in place becomes an empty gesture.

Idea Summary

A wide variety of studies have shown that organizational efforts to help employees achieve a sustainable work-life balance increase employee satisfaction, productivity, and engagement, and their commitment to the organization. One study differentiated between supportive cultures, which value non-work aspects of people’s lives and try to accommodate the work-life balance issues, and hindrance cultures, which send clear messages to employees that they are expected to work long hours and that any prioritizing of personal needs will hurt their careers. Supportive and hindrance cultures led to, respectively, positive and negative psychological climates within the organizations. Another study showed that a supportive work environment led to increased employee satisfaction, decreased stress and decreased turnover intentions (the desire or intent to leave the company).                      

A new study calls into questions, however, whether the relationship between supportive cultures and employee satisfaction and engagement is as direct, linear and consistent as these and many other studies insist. The new study was based on two identical surveys of 823 employees in Australia administered in March 2008 and March 2009. It focused on the use of flexible work arrangements (FWAs) and how organizational culture might influence such use.

Specifically, the study explored two fundamental questions. The first was whether greater organizational support for FWAs and supervisory support for employees would lead to greater use of FWAs and, subsequently, to higher work engagement, lower turnover intention and lower psychological strain. The second question explored the reverse: that is, whether lower support for FWAs and less supervisory support would lead to lower use of FWAs and, subsequently, to lower work engagement, higher turnover intention and higher psychological strain.

The results of the study revealed an unexpectedly complex relationship between organizational culture, use of FWAs and subsequent employee engagement and satisfaction. An important facet of the study — that it was conducted in two parts separated by a year — revealed an even more complex picture as the impact changed over time.

Organizational culture did have a direct influence on the use of FWAs: Employees were less likely to take advantage of flexible work arrangements in less supportive (or ‘hindrance’) companies than in supportive companies. However, the data failed to show a strong link between the use of FWAs and turnover intention and psychological strain.

Thus, according to the study, a non-supportive organizational culture will dampen the use of the FWAs, but less use of FWAs doesn’t mean that employees will be more inclined to leave their companies or will feel any more psychological strain than employees in companies with supportive cultures who can take advantage of FWAs.

Perhaps most surprising, the study showed that more use of FWAs actually led to less work engagement over time.

Further results exploring how organizational support or lack of support for FWAs and supervisory support or lack of support for employees might impact whether employees took advantage of available FWAs, and whether the use of FWAs decreased turnover intentions and psychological strain were also mixed. For example, lack of organizational and supervisor support as well as negative career consequences for choosing FWAs did not lead to higher turnover intention over time. Nor did negative career consequences lead to higher psychological strain over time. Expectations of working long hours, however, did lead to higher turnover intention over time.

Business Application

The bottom line of these various results is that the previous literature oversimplified the connection between FWAs and employee engagement. This literature argues that making flexible work arrangements available will lead to happier, more engaged employees. However, when, as in many organizations, there is a conflict between the availability of FWAs and a culture that rewards long hours in the office, the pressure to work harder and longer is not attenuated; on the contrary, it is exacerbated. Employees feel pressure to avoid FWAs in order not to damage their career prospects, but this pressure only makes them feel even less engaged than before. When FWAs are offered, they have to be considered by employees to be real options, and not window dressing that can turn out to be career traps.

In short, if there is not a supportive culture in place, including supervisor support for employee well-being, dangling the quasi-mirage of FWAs in front of employees only makes them feel worse.

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