My best friend is a single mother who worked her way through school, sometimes two jobs at a time, and graduated Summa Cum Laude with a degree in neuroscience. She was eager to start working at a lab, but quickly realized that the hours weren’t as flexible as the work shift of her previous job in a grocery store. When she asked the head of the lab for a more flexible schedule, the professor (a mother of four), told my friend that sometimes you have to make sacrifices for your career. “That wasn’t a choice that I could even make,” my friend told me later. “I just needed flexibility and could not continue working there without it.” So, she went back to working full time in the job she had before starting college.
Another friend of mine and her husband had a newborn. With only one car between them, she would often have to pack up the car with her baby to drop off and pick up her husband from work. It took time, and her husband had to spend most of the week away from his child. There was a flexibility program at his workplace, but his boss would sometimes not allow him to use it. He then transferred departments to a role that is fully remote. They had a second child, and being able to spend time with his children and wife during lunch and saving time during the commute have been invaluable to him. He’s ambitious and smart, with great experience, and has started to think about the next steps in his career journey, but has discovered that many organizations do not offer the kind of flexibility he enjoys now. So, he worries that he may have to choose between work and family.
But, flexibility isn’t just for those who have children. As someone who gets to work from home, flexibility means a lot of different things to me. It means that instead of focusing on getting ready and commuting to work, I get to spend time every morning focused on my personal passions, like creative writing. It also means that I have a healthier lifestyle because I can make lunch for myself every day, as well as have enough time to go to the gym and cook dinner in the evenings. But, flexibility is about more than that to me. What is most impactful about having flexibility is knowing that my organization trusts me and empowers me to make my own decisions about how I get my work done. I am measured on the quality of my output and the unique contributions that I make.
Yet, many still struggle to experience flexibility in their workplaces. In an era of unprecedented innovative and technological advancement, why is the cultural expectation of fixed hours and facetime not questioned more?
In a recent study, professors from the University of Minnesota conducted an experiment, comparing groups of employees that were placed in a “results-only work environment” that had flexibility, with those that did not. The study found that the group with flexibility had a lower turnover rate. It also found that flexibility could positively impact work/life issues and improve health outcomes. At a time when many organizations are seeking a competitive edge in hiring and retention, flexibility could be a key differentiator when it comes to turnover. At least it is for many of my friends.
Flexibility is currently still framed as a benefit or “nice to have.” There is often still a notion that flexible work is slow tracking one’s career. We need to push back on these assumptions and share our stories of how flexibility can have a positive impact in our daily lives. Flexibility is not simply an add-on, but an innovative and essential way that work can get done today.
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