The Way We Work

A recent report from Catalyst, a think tank focused on women in business, busts through some commonly held assumptions about flexible work arrangements (FWA) and highlights challenges that businesses face when implementing — or rejecting — a results-based “anytime, anywhere” approach to work.

The Great Debate: Flexibility vs. Face Time “establishes that FWA programs, contrary to the current buzz [generated by Yahoo and Best Buy], are indeed alive and well, are widespread across all types of organizations, are desired by young and old employees throughout the pipeline, and that lack of access to FWAs has serious consequences for top talent, especially women,” wrote the report’s authors, Anna Beninger and Nancy M. Carter.

This flexibility research draws on a survey of 726 MBA graduates, which analyzed the perspectives, experiences and priorities of top talent — what Beninger and Carter call “high potentials” — working in for-profit and non-profit organizations around the world. Here are some of their more myth-busting findings.

Parents and Millennials aren’t the only ones who value freedom at work

Parents — and mothers in particular — are often cited as prime beneficiaries of flexible work arrangements that enable them to shape professional commitments around family life. And there’s no question that the landscape has changed for entrepreneurial Millennials who are determined to work on their own terms.

However, the Catalyst report makes it clear that you don’t need to be under 30 or family-minded to highly value being in control:

  • Flexible work ranked as very or extremely important across every level of leadership, and the mean age of people who listed it as a top motivator was 41 years old.

  • People who don’t have kids were just as likely as parents to list flexible work as important.

  • Women are more likely to say flexible work arrangements are important to them, but “both women and men report using most FWA options to the same extent throughout their careers,” the report noted.

Flexible or not, there’s a gender gap when it comes to face time

While use of flexible work arrangements by men and women is fairly balanced, women are more likely to work often or entirely remotely.

“Women (39%) were more likely than men (29%) to report using telecommuting frequently, very frequently, or always over the course of their careers,” according to the survey results.

In contrast, men lean towards options that minimize any impact on face time in the office: flexible arrival and departure times topped the list of preferred arrangements for men, who were also “almost twice as likely to report that they have never telecommuted over the course of their careers.”

Even in a remote work environment, face time matters — particularly when it comes to building relationships. The benefit of showing up in person is what some experts call passive face time.

“To be credited with passive face time you need only be observed at work,” explained Kimberly Elsbach and Daniel Cable in the MIT Sloan Management Review. “No information is required about what you are doing or how well you are doing it.”

As a result, a preference among women for telecommuting may have a negative impact on promotions, salary increases and team dynamics if the organization’s leadership doesn’t take steps to mitigate the difference.

Flexibility encourages high aspirations, especially among women

However, there are very real benefits to flexible work programs, including one that may come as a surprise: Denying access to flexible work arrangements forces many “high potentials” to drop their aspirations. The report found that 90% of people in environments with flexible work arrangements aspired to senior executive/CEO level but, where flexible work wasn’t an option, that percentage rolled back to 77%.

Particularly among women, lack of access to flexible work arrangements has an even more profound impact — perhaps causing many to wonder whether they truly can have it all.

“83% of women with access to FWAs aspired to the C-Suite level vs just 54% of women without FWA access,” the survey found. While Beninger and Carter don’t explain the 30% drop, they do note that women without access to flexible work arrangements are “twice as likely as men to downsize their aspirations.”

To read more about the report’s findings — and find out what your organization can do to be an “employer of choice” — download the full report from the Catalyst website here.

Amy Sept

Managing Editor

As the managing editor of the Upwork blog, Amy Sept works with regular and guest writers to share information that helps freelancers and businesses navigate the future of work. She owns Nimbyist Communications and helps non-profits, startups, and small business owners get their content marketing on track.