“98 percent of respondents say employees now expect more flexible working hours, while 89 percent said they expect agile/home working to be available.” — Aon’s Benefits and Trends Survey 2019
Over the last decade, in public survey after public survey, in national and global studies, among millennials and aging workers and all those in between, what employees say loudly and clearly that they most want in today’s workplace is: FLEXIBILITY. A graph charting this demand would show the rising priority they place on greater control over where, when and how they work compared to the appeal of traditional comp and benefits. But are they actually getting the flexibility they value?
Hundreds of company surveys find employees “satisfied” with the flexibility they have
Similar to standard performance reviews, annual or bi-annual surveys of employee satisfaction or engagement have become commonplace, bordering on ritual. As with many business routines, a minor industry has evolved to design, deliver and analyze these processes. While some enterprising HR departments may develop customized versions of this process, over the years the essential questions seeking feedback on the state of workplace flexibility have devolved into predictable general queries.
Most surveys and the items they explore are drawn from a body of so-called normed questions. The advantage of these carefully conceived and widely tested research tools is that they limit unintended bias and should be valid across similar populations. Unfortunately, an unintended side-effect of such rigor is a tendency to favor the general over the specific and to discourage creative questioning.
Examples of widely used questions to assess satisfaction with the state of flexible work are:
“I have an appropriate degree of flexibility with when and where I conduct my work.”
“I can effectively manage my work and non-work responsibilities.”
Not surprisingly, these questions tend to elicit moderate to high levels of positive response. But what happens if one digs a bit deeper?
The research equivalent of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell”
Some employers may ask for individual comments on an overall survey and more rarely encourage follow-up responses on a specific question. When employees are given the opportunity to provide open-ended critique and recommendations, a very different picture typically emerges.
One of our clients asked slight variants of the normed questions above as part of a six-item set were categorized as “work environment.” The results in that combined category were reported out in the survey summary as 75% “satisfied” and “very satisfied.” This would suggest little need for change.
But due to some perceived complaints from key staff, this organization decided to do a deeper dive by allowing open-ended responses on the question: “I have an appropriate degree of flexibility…” Given this opportunity, the employee floodgates opened.
If you ask it, they will answer
The result: more than 900 individual comments, totaling 115 pages when printed out. In our experience, these results were not dramatically different than we find when any of our clients ask for honest feedback and offers to listen, whether through creative surveying, open-ended comments or focus groups.
The general themes were as simple as they are common: people wished to be spared a day or two of brutal commute for more productive – and feasible – time working at home; they need the occasional flexibility afforded by broader practice of flextime. And the replies ranged from simple pleas such as “If I could only work from home one day a week, it would be wonderful!” to page-long detailed sketches of a potential formal policy.
Of course interpreting, summarizing and deciding what to do with this body of feedback is more challenging than simply reporting out a vague sense of satisfaction. But such rich and detailed suggestions of what your employees truly value and what steps you can take to strengthen their retention and engagement – and stand out in recruitment – are invaluable.
Above all, this process, when properly done, shows respect for a workforce that will almost inevitably respond in kind. Superior implementation of flexible work depends on a robust partnership. The employer who asks serious questions and listens fully has the best chance of aligning internal practice with the growing emphasis on flexibility that employees everywhere need and want.
Paul Rupert, Founder & CEO
Rupert Organizational Design
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Since 2000, Rupert Organizational Design has been building respectful workplaces. Our innovative problem-solving and over four decades of expertise on Workplace Flexibility and Phased Retirement is transforming organizations. The key to our approach is Mutual Respect. Rupert Organizational Design client partnerships range from major national and global firms to hospitals and small businesses in achieving superior talent and operational successes. If you’d like a consultation on building a respectful workplace, contact us at firstname.lastname@example.org.