Flex Work: Making Work Work for Everyone
Labor is a hot-button issue. The current discourse presents the arguments in binary terms—people either want to work, or they don’t. But what if there’s a middle way that satisfies everyone? If you’ve been looking for a more nuanced approach to this debate, flex working could be a solution.
Ready to implement flex work at your organization? Explore the following ideas and consider the ways you could put them into practice.
What is flex work?
Flex work is the practice of making a workplace more flexible in terms of scheduling, working hours, location, and benefits. There are no set-in-stone rules for flex work, and many organizations take a number of different approaches through various policies and working arrangements.
Here are some common ways you’ll see companies practice flex work:
- Options for remote work
- Flexible or unlimited time off policies
- Flexible scheduling arrangements (more on this in a bit)
- Floating holidays
- Paid volunteer time
- Health savings account (HSA) plans
- Professional development mentorship programs
More and more companies are adopting flex work policies as part of a broader effort to make workplaces more equitable and inclusive, and it’s quite popular among employees. A 2021 worker survey from Workable found that 58 percent of respondents indicated the ability to work flexibly was important to them.
Advantages and disadvantages of flex work
There are still advantages and disadvantages of flex work, and not every job will allow the same, if any, degree of flexibility. Here are some benefits and challenges you might encounter when implementing flexible work arrangements.
- Increased accessibility for disabled people, people living in different cities, and caregivers—particularly in regards to remote work
- Greater flexibility for working parents and caregivers
- Reduced carbon emissions, in the case of remote and hybrid work
- Increased productivity
- Reduced turnover (gated) and absenteeism
- Makes companies more competitive in attracting talent
- Improved employee health, including better sleep, lower blood pressure, and better self-care habits
- Feelings of isolation or loneliness, especially when working completely remotely
- Disconnect between in-office and remote staff
- Potential to create division between those who are eligible for flex work and those who are not
- Possibility of staffing issues if not managed properly
Flex work can be hugely beneficial, but it’s not without any downsides. Just as with any divisive topic, both the pros and cons can be blown out of proportion. Let’s take a closer look at the pros and cons of flex work in two specific examples.
A closer look: remote work
To use a personal example, I started working remotely in March 2020 and did so for almost two years. I loved many aspects of working remotely: no more sitting in traffic, more time to exercise, better sleep, reduced stress, more quality time with my family. But I also noticed some side effects of working remotely that I didn’t love: loss of connection with coworkers, increased feelings of loneliness, and blurred lines between home and work.
In my experience, I still prefer to work remotely more often than not, but I had to learn how to manage some of the downsides that can come with this arrangement. For example, I found that I prefer a hybrid schedule where I go into the office a few days a week and work from home the rest of the week. It was also important to me to create a designated workspace at home to set boundaries and limit distractions.
Of course, employers can also help here by offering home office stipends and other remote perks. If you’re starting from scratch, setting up a home office can be expensive, and stipends can help offset some of that cost.
A closer look: paid parental leave
Paid parental leave is another way to implement flexible working policies. In the United States, there is no federally guaranteed right to paid parental leave. States decide that matter individually, with only three states having adopted policies to guarantee the right to maternity leave.
Even then, paid maternity leave is not the norm. And according to Healthline, 40 percent of women don’t qualify for the Family Medical Leave Act (FMLA), a federal law. This law provides 12 weeks of protected unpaid leave to parents, including fathers, with covered employers required to continue providing health benefits. According to Business.org, other countries like Greece, Chile, and Germany guarantee paid maternity leave at a full-rate equivalent of 26.6, 18, and 14 weeks, respectively.
This has led some US businesses to step up to provide better parental leave policies. According to Buildremote, salaried employees at Netflix can take up to a full year of fully paid parental leave (parents of any gender, including birth and adoptive parents), and Amazon provides up to 20 weeks of fully paid maternity leave for both its corporate and warehouse workers.
While this may seem like a large cost for businesses, the companies who provide these benefits understand the importance of offering exceptional benefits. Netflix has a market capitalization of $111 billion, and Amazon is the fifth most valuable company in the world at the time of publication, with a market cap of $1.4 trillion. In a tight labor market, flexible benefits like paid parental leave can make a huge difference in attracting the best and brightest to your company.
Examples of flexible work schedules
For companies that hire mostly salaried workers, flexible work schedules are becoming increasingly popular.
With a flexible schedule arrangement, workers have autonomy over when and where they do their work, as long as their work gets done. A manager will usually have a discussion with their direct reports about what this might look like in detail. Aligning expectations is important with this kind of scheduling arrangement, so managers will want to make sure workers understand any requirements to:
- Work a certain number of hours each week
- Work a minimum number of days in-office per month
- Maintain a minimum working hour overlap
The latter is especially important for remote teams where employees can live almost anywhere in the world. Remote-first companies may choose to center working hours around what time zone—like Greenwich Mean Time (GMT) or Eastern Time (ET)—works best for most people.
Real world example
For example, let’s say you run a remote-first company headquartered in Atlanta with a five-hour minimum working time overlap policy.
Atlanta is in ET in the US, so any employees you hire from western Africa or western Europe will be about five to six hours ahead of you. Folks from the North American West Coast will be three hours behind, and any folks you hire from South America could be in the same time zone, an hour behind, or an hour ahead.
Things can get a little dicey when you start looking at hiring people from Asia-Pacific (APAC), so workers might have to adjust their working hours outside their normal schedule. For instance, if you hire someone from Manila, they will be 12 hours ahead of you. In order to meet the five-hour minimum working time overlap, they will probably have to work nights, starting at 5 p.m. and ending at 1 a.m. local time.
Tip: There are a number of great time zone converters and time zone overlap tools online. I used several when writing this article, but my favorite tool was time-overlap.com.
Rise of the four-day workweek
The four-day workweek is a big trend right now, with at least 83 companies adopting this schedule permanently. Many workers want a four-day workweek in favor of better work-life balance and to combat increased burnout from the COVID-19 pandemic. Some countries like Japan and Spain are getting behind the movement.
Unlike compressed work schedules, which reduce the number of working days without reducing the total number of working hours, a four-day workweek shaves one full 8-hour day off the working week. For this reason, the schedule is sometimes referred to as a 32-hour workweek.
Opinions on a four-day workweek remain split among businesses, but initial research suggests this schedule could reduce turnover costs and improve productivity. One survey from the University of Reading found a four-day week could save businesses up to £12 billion ($14.5 billion USD) per year, and a 2019 study from Microsoft Japan found a shorter workweek increased worker productivity by 40 percent.
Despite some hesitation among business leaders, employees overwhelmingly support implementing a four-day workweek. One Qualtrics study found that 92 percent of employees would support their employer shifting to a four-day workweek.
Examples of compressed work schedules
While they don’t offer the same degree of flexibility that a true flexible schedule does, alternative work schedules are another way for employers to give workers scheduling options. Instead of a typical 9-5, compressed schedules consist of longer shifts in exchange for fewer working days.
Let’s take a look at three examples of compressed schedules:
- 4/10 compressed work schedule
- 12-hour compressed work schedule
- 9/80 work schedule
4/10 compressed work schedule
Maybe the most popular compressed schedule, workers on a 4/10 schedule work four 10-hour days for a total of 40 hours per week. At some workplaces this means a three-day weekend, while other companies let employees choose their day off.
A third option is implementing a floating day off policy where employees don’t get a fixed day off but have the freedom to choose their day off every week. This might be the most flexible option, as it allows workers time to deal with unexpected life events or take three-day weekends for short getaways.
If you’re thinking about adopting a 4/10 schedule at your company, don’t feel pressured to do all or nothing. Some companies only offer 4/10 schedules at certain times of the year, while others offer it as an option year-round. Trial periods can also be a good option if you want to try out a schedule change before making a decision.
12-hour compressed work schedule
A 12-hour compressed schedule is popular in industries like healthcare that require staffing 24/7. In this schedule, employees work 12-hour shifts, usually following a certain shift pattern. Some popular shift patterns include:
- 4 on, 4 off. This might be the simplest 12-hour shift pattern. Employees work four shifts consecutively and then have four consecutive days off. Shifts can either be day or night shifts.
- 2-3-2. In this pattern, employees work two consecutive 12-hour shifts followed by two consecutive days off. They then work three consecutive shifts with two consecutive days off before wrapping up the pattern with two consecutive shifts followed by three consecutive days off. Some people also call this an “every other weekend off” schedule because workers on this schedule get one weekend off every 14 days.
- 5-5-2-2 and 5-2-2-5. This pattern relies on two teams working alternating shift patterns. One team of employees works five consecutive 12-hour shifts followed by five consecutive days off. Then they work two days in a row with two days off before the cycle repeats. On the first team’s five consecutive off days, the second team works five days in a row. While the first team works two consecutive days off, the second team has two consecutive days off, and so on.
9/80 work schedule
In a 9/80 work schedule, employees get a three-day weekend every other week. It works by dividing 80 hours by 9 days in a two-week period, usually with eight 9-hour days and one 8-hour day.
In a typical five-day workweek, a 9/80 employee might work four consecutive 9-hour days followed by one 8-hour day. They would have a normal two-day weekend (Saturday and Sunday) before working four consecutive 9-hour days with Friday off. HR usually splits the 8-hour day into two separate shifts for payroll purposes since any time worked over 40 hours per week is considered overtime for non-salaried employees.
Just like the other two compressed schedules we’ve examined, employees work longer hours but have fewer total working days. For those who want time off in larger chunks, the 9/80 schedule can be a good option.
Why do employees want flex work?
Employees want flex work for a number of different reasons:
- Flex work makes it easier for people to plan work around their lives instead of planning their lives around work. Life is short, and people increasingly want better work-life balance to live more full and meaningful lives.
- There’s an argument to be made that increased interest in flex work is a backlash to the rise of hustle culture in the 2010s. Members of younger generations especially became disillusioned with hustle culture after experiencing some of its negative side effects, like burnout, depression, and anxiety.
- The COVID-19 pandemic put life into perspective for a lot of people. At a time when millions of people tragically lost their lives to a deadly disease, people started reevaluating their life’s priorities. For many, work turned out to be less of a priority than previously thought.
- Flex work can give employees an increased sense of agency—reducing stress, burnout, and ultimately turnover. The longer stretches of time off flex work affords also gives people more time to work on passion projects or side hustles, whether purely for pleasure or for supplemental income.
Creating a flexible work environment
A flexible work environment is fundamentally one that prioritizes employee well-being over productivity. Fortunately, a growing body of research indicates that such policies are, in turn, also good for productivity. The logic looks something like this:
- Flex work makes employees happier
- Happier employees are more productive
- Therefore flexible work is a win for everyone
Start by implementing some of the flexible work policies discussed in this blog post. This is by no means an exhaustive guide to flex work, so do more research to get ideas that might work for your organization.
Solicit input and feedback from employees, and make adjustments as necessary to refine your strategy. If done well, a flexible work environment could offer a good compromise between people who want more work-life balance and those whose salary depends on driving revenue.
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