Americans are recalibrating their view of success. It used to be that success meant stuff – and more stuff and more stuff. Bumper stickers and t-shirts proclaimed, “He who dies with the most toys wins”—even if you had no time to play with them.
However, a slew of recent studies, including the recent LifeTwist study commissioned by American Express, find that rather than traditional measures of material wealth, intangibles, such as a good marriage, having a good balance between work and personal life, and being able to take a day off when desired, have soared in importance.
“The way we define success isn’t working,” said Ariana Huffington during the recent conference on “The Third Metric: Redefining Success beyond Money & Power.” “More, bigger, better – we can’t do that anymore.”
But there’s one basic problem: Even as the cornerstone of the reconstructed view of success rests on enjoying greater independence and autonomy, workplace flexibility has never been more elusive.
Call it faux-flex: According to the Families and Work Institute’s 2012 National Study of Employers, the menu of flexible work options to help workers manage the time and place they work has increased across the board. From 2005 to 2012, the study found, more employers routinely offered flex time (from 66 percent to 77 percent), flex place (from 34 percent to 63 percent), choices in managing time (from 78 percent to 93 percent), and daily time off when important needs arrive (from 77 percent to 87 percent). But at the same time, the penalties for using these policies have never been greater.
According to research published in 2010 by the Center for Talent Innovation (then the Center for Work-Life Policy), a New York-based think tank, 18 percent of men and 28 percent of women who were on flexible work arrangements said that they felt taking flex would curtail their chances of career advancement. One focus group participant explained, “I switched jobs because I was promised flex and a four-day week. In reality, I worked five, and sometimes six days a week with no flex, but I was still labeled a flex worker. When the company merged, I was downsized. I’m sure my working ‘flex’ had something to do with it.”
That was three years ago, and the country is still suffering through entrenched unemployment and a slow economic recovery. Under the circumstances, telecommuting, compressed work weeks and job-sharing too often are trumped by face-time pressure and rigid office schedules. In fact, CTI research found, face-time pressure has actually increased; as a result of persistent economic instability, even the most talented workers feel the need to prove that they’re committed and indispensable.
Furthermore, even when managers understand and approve the need for flexible work arrangements, co-workers may resent it. With employers holding the line on new hires, everyone is stretched to the limit. People who aren’t actually seen toiling in the trenches find themselves in danger of being perceived as slackers by their colleagues. One manager interviewed by CTI reported that people in her department who take flex are referred to by their colleagues as “the having fun group.”
In the national conversation sparked by Anne-Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic about “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” and Sheryl Sandberg’s book urging women to Lean In, work-life balance is often seen as a women’s issue and flex, by extension, is often viewed as part of a “mommy track” for women who don’t take their careers seriously. Yet the facts, as laid out by a recent Pew Research Center study on modern parenthood, find “no significant gap in attitudes between mothers and fathers” about the difficulty of balancing career and family responsibilities. As articles in Esquire and The Atlantic demonstrate, men want flex-time, too.
The fact is, flex time can boost a business’s bottom line. CTI research finds that companies that actively endorse flex work are talent magnets. This is especially true for ambitious, high-performing women: 69 percent of women surveyed said they wouldn’t have taken a career break if their former employer had offered one or more specific work-life balance options, such as reduced-hour schedules, job sharing, part-time career tracks, short unpaid sabbaticals, and flextime. With women already earning more than half of undergraduate and graduate degrees, companies looking to hire the best and brightest can’t afford to ignore this powerful lure.
Success used to mean a dream house or dream car. But in today’s time-crunched world, the stuff that dreams are made of may just turn out to be flex.
How is flex-time viewed in your workplace?
Sylvia Ann Hewlett
Founder of Center for Talent Innovation & Hewlett Chivée Partners LLC