Based on the media hyperbole surrounding Yahoo’s recent decision to call telecommuters back to the office, one might think this decision only or mainly affects mothers. Since the news broke and my column appeared on The Daily Beast last week, I’ve been on radio and television shows, done numerous media interviews, and read blogs where it is positioned this way time and time again.
From one radio host, I heard, “This is a blow to new mothers.” Another interviewer questioned whether this recall could be construed as illegal discrimination, “because it would have a disproportionate impact on a minority group—this policy change will almost certainly disadvantage women more than men.” And while Time’s Bonnie Rochman was very perceptive, her headline fell into the it’s-a-mom-thing supposition: “How Yahoo CEO Marissa Mayer Is Building a Nursery By Her Office and Dissing Working Moms.”
But this isn’t the reality! According to the Families and Work Institute’s nationally representative study of the U.S. workforce:
- Men actually have more access to telecommuting than women. Men (19 percent) are significantly more likely than women (13 percent) to be allowed to work part of their regular paid hours at home.
- Men (4 percent) are also more likely to work mainly from home compared with women (2 percent). Similarly, while men (67 percent) tend to work at home more often than women (59 percent) on an occasional basis, these differences do not reach statistical significance.
Since flexibility is typically given to more advantaged employees, men have greater access to all kinds of flexibility, including paid vacation days, paid holidays, time off for elder care without jeopardizing income, the ability to volunteer during the workday and traditional flextime.
Usage of flexibility follows a similar pattern with men using various types of flexibility more than women, except for part-time work (more women work part time than men). For example, men flex their schedules more often than women:
In practice, the frequency of employees telecommuting and flexing their time is low. The past week’s debate seems to assume that telecommuting means full time away from the office—all or nothing. Although that may be the case at Yahoo, it is not typical elsewhere. Most business leaders plan times together to collaboration and innovation and times away for reflection and creativity. And although there may be abuse, in well-managed companies it is quite infrequent.
Workplace flexibility works best when it’s viewed as a business essential, not an employee perk that can be randomly bestowed or taken away.
Although the numbers using telecommuting and flex time are low, they do not reflect the passion that employees have for flexibility, as seen by the huge outcry over the Yahoo’s decision the past seven days. In response to my column on the decision, we heard from men—and women—who shared their work-at-home stories. For example:
(From Sprint2010) I've been an outside worker for more than 20 years and the company gets far more than its moneys worth out of me because I'm in the office for some hours almost every day, including weekends.
Creativity stems from direct personal interaction. But there's a balance. If this tanks company morale, she may have accomplished nothing.
And a commute through heavy traffic or even a long one is just a killer.
Here the outcry reflects our data. In our nationally representative study, we asked:
Imagine that you were looking for a new job. How important would each of the following things be in deciding to take that job: extremely important, very important, somewhat important, or not important?
When it comes to “having the flexibility I need to manage my work and personal or family life,” there are no differences been men and women—87 percent of men and women highly value flexibility, saying it would be extremely or very important in job decisions.
Furthermore, and perhaps surprisingly, there is no difference among the generations, though it is often said that younger employees value flexibility more than older ones:
Eight-six percent of mature employees, 86 percent of Baby Boomers, 89 percent of Gen Xers, and 87 percent of Gen Yers say flexibility would be extremely or very important.
I have come to think about flexibility as an insurance policy. It’s there for employees when they need it and for the most part is used quite sparingly.
Here’s where assumptions and facts clash. Our data reveal that having access to flexibility is not for mothers only nor is it for fathers only. It is not for younger employees only, nor is it for older employees only. It is for all of us. And it is not for all of the time, all or nothing, as the Yahoo decree implied.
Like a well-managed insurance policy, it can benefit employers too. Our exhaustive research shows that employees with access to flexibility are more likely than other employees to have:
- greater engagement in their jobs;
- higher levels of job satisfaction;
- stronger intentions to remain with their employers;
- less negative and stressful spillover from job to home;
- less negative spillover from home to job; and
- better mental health.
Flexibility must work for the employer and the employee, and our analysis shows that it does when it’s managed well and viewed as a business essential, not an employee perk that can be randomly bestowed or taken away.
When I was in school, I remember being taught how to spell “assume” and why you shouldn’t do it—because when you “assume”, you make an “ass” out of “u” and “me.” If we move the debate about flexibility and telecommuting away from false assumptions, we can provide flexibility that works for employees and employers alike.