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Impact | Getting ahead in the flexible workplace

Volume 19, Number 8
August 2013

Alison Konrad has good news for employees who are worried about using work life benefits.

konrad-impact-10.jpgWhen Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer announced a ban on employees working at home, it came as a shock to those who argue for more flexibility in the workplace. Mayer defended her decision as being good for Yahoo, but made it clear that she wasn't trying to start "an industry narrative." Still, it left many people feeling that working from home was something that employers generally frown upon.

Ivey Professor Alison Konrad is the Corus Entertainment Chair in Women in Management. She has a positive message for employees: asking for more flexible work arrangements may actually help your career. In a recent study published in the Journal of Organizational Behaviour, she found that those who use work life flexibility options are more likely to be promoted.

Konrad, who researches diversity and gender in the workplace, is a strong believer that employees need more opportunities to balance work and family. "The traditional, old fashioned staffing system that was created for people with a spouse at home puts too much strain on employees, often creating dissatisfaction, disengagement, and even  illness and mental health issues," she says. "Having some flexibility helps reduce the strain."

Working from home is one example of work life flexibility offered by organizations. Other examples are flexible scheduling of work hours, reduced hours, compressed hours (such as a work week consisting of three  12 hour shifts), and employer assistance with child or elder care.

Although many managers find it a challenge to lead in a flexible workplace, there is ample evidence that work life accommodation is good for both employee and employer. "A lot of research shows that people who take advantage of work life options are more committed to the employer, feel more appreciated, work harder, and perform better," says Konrad.

However, there is still a strong perception among many people that the use of flexibility options is a career-limiting move. "There is this idea that if you use a work life flexibility benefit you'll be noted as making a choice for family over career, that you won't be as focused on your job, and not be as available to your employer," she says. "As a result you will lose promotability."

This view has been supported by the existing research, which was based on hypothetical experimental studies. Recently Konrad and co-author Yang Yang, Assistant Professor at Rowan University, were given an ideal opportunity to look at this question again, this time with real life data. They received access to a large national sample based on workplace and employee survey data collected by Statistics Canada in 2001 and 2002. The data came from surveys  of 14,920 employees from 1500 businesses. "We felt it important to add a field study to the existing hypothetical studies ," says Konrad.  "Sometimes what happens in the longer run is different from what happens in the immediate term in the experiment."

Konrad and Yang's analysis lead to what she describes as a "happy finding."  "We found that those who used the flexibility options were statistically significantly more likely to be promoted in the subsequent year."

Konrad believes that her research can be reconciled with the experimental research, which came to the opposite conclusion. "We accept that the existing research is true: there is an initial perception when you ask for a work life flexibility benefit that you won't be working as hard, and this will affect your promotability," she says. "But our theory is that over a period of several months or a year, when a manager sees that the employee continues to be reliable, produces quality work, is less stressed out and a better decision maker, that negative perception goes away."

However, Konrad and Yang found that single parents who used flexibility benefits were not more likely to be promoted. "It's possible that single parents are not seeking promotion in the same way as parents with partners, so it's difficult to see if that outcome is the result of perception or choice," says Konrad.  She was pleased to find that men were using work life flexibility benefits almost as much as women, and there was no gender difference in the likelihood of being promoted.

Konrad points out that her results can be interpreted in two different ways. It's possible, as she theorizes, that managers see people using work life benefits doing really well, and then decide to promote them. It also may be that employers only give work life accommodation to high performers, who they want to keep. Regardless, the message to employees is clear: the use of flexibility arrangements won't limit your career.

The news to employers is good, too.  "My study says to managers that you will be pleasantly surprised by how positive the outcome is when you give someone a work life flexibility option," says Konrad. "You'll see that a lot of people will remain very highly promotable for you."

    

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