August 30th, 2011 | 6:00 am

Flex and Job Security: The New Balancing Act

filed under Work-Life

Hispanic Woman Working In Home OfficeBy Melissa J. Anderson (New York City)

According to a recent study in the Journal of Vocational Behaviour, there is a huge disconnect in policy and practice when it comes to corporate flex programs. The study, “Influences on employee perceptions of organizational work–life support: Signals and resources,” found that even though many companies have flex policies in place, employees aren’t taking advantage of them.

Why? Workplace cultures often do not support actually using human resources policies as they are written.

As the report’s author Ariane Ollier-Malaterre told the Financial Times:

“Employees aren’t using the policies because they feel that if they did it would negatively impact their career. They feel that if they were to say, take a leave or go part-time, they would not be conforming to the ideals of a loyal committed worker, and it would [harm their opportunities for advancement.] Quite frankly, the consensus in the work/life community is that work/life doesn’t work.”

Ollier-Malaterre indicated that a workplace culture unsupportive to flex utilization may be driving women out of the workforce – that at the manager level and beyond, women tend to drop off the career ladder. The reason, she says, is that companies have a hard time acknowledging that many women have significant priorities outside the workplace.

The solution, she said, is improving job security for those employees who take advantage of flex policies. She explained:

“Job security helps employees feel supported. What good is on-site childcare if you’re worried about losing your job? Another important attribute is the fit between employees’ needs and the work options available to them. Companies need to really tackle the organisation of work – the way they assign workload, and the norms around typical working hours. Organisations need to consider each employee as a whole person, not just one of its resources.”

And she added, if your coworker makes a snarky remark about leaving early or your work habits – your workplace culture probably isn’t supportive enough.

FT writer Rebecca Knight commented, “But it does appear that if companies are serious about retaining more of their female talent, they need to go beyond just providing human resources programmes. Otherwise employees will perceive them merely as lip service.”

But what are women to do? Even if many companies are merely paying lip service to the idea of flex, the current economic climate and jobs outlook isn’t exactly inspiring. Many people feel lucky just to have a job. Should we be willing to “walk” if our flex needs are not being met?

According to research by iPass, a company that provides support for mobile workers, a third of workers are willing to leave their job if their needs aren’t being met.

Jenny Williams of ComputerWeekly reports, “…40% of the 3,100 employees surveyed worldwide wanted employers to provide more flexible working conditions. A total of 33% would consider looking for employment elsewhere in search of better mobile working benefits.”

Barbara Nelson, iPass’s CTO said told the magazine, “Enterprises should note, if they don’t provide the flexibility today’s mobile employees feel entitled to, their employees will seek out those companies who do allow them the freedom to work when and where they choose.”

The other surprising news the report revealed is that more people – 68% according to the survey – are getting comfortable with turning their mobile devices off. In 2010 only 47% said the same. This is a big shift in how people are interacting with their Blackberry, iPhone, or other gadget.

Nelson said, “The top reason given for disconnecting was to spend more time with their families. It appears that the mobile workforce is finally getting a better grip on their work/life balance.”

The iPass research shows a big change in expectations around flexibility and mobile devices – and it may mean we are seeing a change in consciousness around technology. Employees are taking ownership over how and when they use it. Mobile devices are no longer being seen as a shiny workplace privilege, but as a job to get work done.

Yet, as Ollier-Malaterre’s points out, not all employers feel the same way. The technology is there, and the flex policies are in place, but that doesn’t mean workplaces are ready for employees to move full steam ahead. Tackling this tension is the next step for flex implementation.

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