Flexibility is the New Employment Currency and Your Managers Hold the Purse

Last fall I was honored with the opportunity to speak at HRCI’s Higher Standard Micro Summit. At the start of my presentation, I shared eye-opening Great Resignation statistics that were challenging human resource professionals to step up their talent retention efforts. 

Since my presentation, the numbers are even more jaw-dropping. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor’s latest Job Openings and Labor Turnover Survey (JOLTS) report, 4.2 million Americans left their jobs in October (following a record-high 4.4 million in September) as employers struggle to attract and retain talent.

While many experts indicate pay and working conditions as a major cause of these unprecedented resignations, I think there is an additional, more nuanced and foundational layer of worker dissatisfaction that is propelling this trend. For many workers, flexibility is more important than increased wages.

In a recent NPR interview, Lane Windham, a Labor Historian at Georgetown University, characterized 2021 as “a worker rights revival… a slow-moving general strike.” Windham goes on to point out that this movement is the largest one since the mass entry of women into the workforce.

In a working research paper (registration required), UC Berkeley economist Ulrike Malmendier suggests that there is something very personal that is driving widespread worker discontentment. I believe the pandemic and the wide-spread adoption of remote work have fundamentally changed the way we think about work life balance and how they should align.

No More Missed Extracurricular Family Events

What will it take to lure talented workers back to our organizations? As human resource professionals, we know the basic building blocks of a high-functioning talent strategy (clear roles, fair compensation, healthy cultures, etc.), yet even with these critical items in place, organizations are still struggling to attract and retain talent.

What is missing? Flexibility. Flexibility is the new employment currency. To be successful in today’s labor market, organizations need to figure out ways for employees to contribute in meaningful ways at work and at home, while enjoying other aspects of their family lives.

It is challenging to provide workers with flexibility, while ensuring you meet customer demands. However, organizations indicated it would be challenging, nearly impossible, to meet changing Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements or comply with new American with Disabilities Act (ADA) regulations while running a profitable business. Decades later, they figured it out, and organizations and society are better for it.

Work-Life Alignment

Today, helping employees to find a new way to align work and life is an essential balance. While well-being programs and flex days policies are a start, organizations should utilize their most important and under-utilized resources, their managers, to promote this alignment. As the gatekeepers, managers can show flexibility and convince the workforce of the value of these privileges.

Research by Dr. Ellen Ernst Kossek (Purdue University) and Dr. Leslie Hammer (Portland State University) indicates that an employee’s ability to align their work and personal responsibilities hinge on the extent to which people managers demonstrate four specific behaviors. In partnership with Kossek and Hammer, my organization has adapted these behaviors to create a practical learning program that teaches managers how to:

  • CONNECT – Make employees feel comfortable talking with them about their conflicts between work and personal responsibilities.
  • RESPOND – Work effectively with employees to creatively solve conflicts between their work and personal responsibilities.
  • RETHINK – Organize work in their department or group to jointly benefit the employees and the organization.
  • MODEL – Demonstrate effective behaviors in how to juggle work and personal responsibilities.

Kossek and Hammer’s National Institute of Health backed research found that managers who consistently demonstrate these behaviors positively impact employee engagement, retention and well-being.

Steve Dion is Founder and CEO of Dion Leadership a leadership and organization development consulting firm. Steve has dedicated his career to understanding and improving organizational cultures through the creation and deployment of innovative assessment, leadership, and team development programs. He is a regular contributor to Fast Company, CEOWORLD magazine, Chief Executive, TrainingIndustry.com, and HRCI’s HR Leads Business Blog.