Flexible Schedules: The Pros, Cons, & Surprising Outcomes

The traditional 9-to-5 workday is rapidly becoming a thing of the past. In 2024, more and more companies are embracing flexible work schedules in response to employee demands and a growing body of research touting the benefits. But what exactly does a flexible schedule entail? And is it right for every organization?

In this article, we‘ll take an in-depth look at the world of flexible work arrangements. We‘ll explore the many advantages these schedules offer for both employees and employers, while also acknowledging some of the challenges and pitfalls to watch out for. Finally, we‘ll highlight some surprising research findings and share best practices for making flexible work a success at your company.

What is a Flexible Work Schedule?

A flexible work schedule is any arrangement that gives employees some control over when, where, or how long they work, within set parameters. Rather than requiring everyone to work set hours (like 9am to 5pm), a flex schedule allows employees to vary their start and end times or even the days they work. Some common types of flexible schedules include:

  • Flextime: Employees can choose their start and end times, as long as they work certain core hours (e.g. 10am-3pm)
  • Compressed workweeks: Employees work longer hours each day in exchange for a day off each week or every other week (e.g. four 10-hour days)
  • Remote work: Employees have the option to work from home or another off-site location some or all of the time

The specifics can vary widely by company, but the core principle is that employees are given greater autonomy and trusted to manage their own time in a way that balances work obligations with personal needs and preferences.

The Pros of Flexible Work Schedules

Improved Work-Life Balance

One of the biggest draws of flexible work is the promise of better work-life balance. When employees have more control over their schedules, it‘s easier for them to manage personal commitments – whether that‘s picking up kids from school, attending a fitness class, or simply having more time for hobbies and socializing.

According to a 2022 survey by FlexJobs:

  • 89% of respondents said flexible work options would make them happier in general
  • 81% said flexibility would aid in better mental health management
  • 77% said flexibility would help them manage personal commitments better

Increased Productivity

Another major benefit of flexible schedules is the potential for increased productivity. When employees can work during their most productive hours (which vary from person to person), the quality and quantity of their output often improves. Additionally, remote work can enable uninterrupted focus time away from chatty coworkers and office distractions.

A landmark 2015 study published in American Sociological Review found that employees at a Fortune 500 company who were randomly assigned to work from anywhere saw a 13% performance increase. The study authors concluded that "granting workers more control over where and when they work can boost their productivity."

Higher Job Satisfaction and Lower Turnover

Flexible work options have also been shown to significantly impact job satisfaction and employee retention. When workers feel trusted and empowered to manage their own time, they tend to be happier and more loyal to their employer.

The 2022 FlexJobs survey found that 79% of respondents would be more loyal to their employer if they had flexible work options. Additionally, 28% said they would take a 10-20% pay cut in exchange for the option to work remotely.

On the retention front, a 2017 study by Stanford Graduate School of Business found that job attrition rates fell by over 50% when a large Chinese travel agency allowed its call center employees to work from home. The study authors estimated that the company saved about $2,000 per employee on reduced turnover costs.

Cost Savings for Employers

In addition to reducing turnover expenses, offering remote and flexible work can help companies save significantly on real estate and overhead costs. Global Workplace Analytics estimates that a typical employer can save an average of $11,000 per half-time telecommuter per year.

Here‘s how those savings break down:

Expense Category Annual Savings per Half-Time Telecommuter
Real Estate $5,000
Utilities/Supplies $1,500
Cleaning $1,000
Turnover $3,500

(Source: Global Workplace Analytics)

Major companies like Dell, Aetna, and American Express have reported saving millions annually by reducing their office space footprint as more employees work remotely. Beyond the hard cost savings, many employers find that offering flexible work helps them attract and retain higher caliber talent, providing additional bottom-line benefits.

The Cons of Flexible Work Schedules

Communication and Collaboration Challenges

One of the most common concerns about flexible and remote work is the impact on communication and collaboration. When employees are working varied schedules or from different locations, it can be harder to get everyone together for meetings or spontaneous conversations.

In a 2020 PwC survey of 669 CEOs, 70% expressed concerns about the effects of remote work on communication and collaboration. Some specific challenges include:

  • Difficulty coordinating meeting times across time zones
  • Lack of impromptu problem-solving discussions
  • Fewer opportunities for relationship-building and informal learning
  • Heavier reliance on digital communication tools

Companies can mitigate these issues by setting core collaboration hours, utilizing the right technology solutions, and creating intentional opportunities for team bonding. But it‘s an ongoing challenge that requires proactive management.

Blurred Work-Life Boundaries

Ironically, while flexible schedules aim to improve work-life balance, they can sometimes have the opposite effect. When work and home occur in the same space, the lines between "on" and "off" time often blur. Employees may feel pressure (self-imposed or otherwise) to be available at all hours, leading to overwork and burnout.

Data suggests this is a pervasive problem:

  • 59% of remote workers said they experienced more stress and anxiety than their in-office peers (UK government study, 2022)
  • 44% of parents working remotely found it difficult to switch off from work, and nearly half described their mental health as poor (Office for National Statistics, 2022)
  • Employees are working longer hours than ever before, putting in an average of 9.2 hours per weekday when working from home (NordVPN, 2022)

Setting clear expectations about working hours, response times, and the right to disconnect is crucial for maintaining healthy boundaries in a flexible work environment. Managers should model these behaviors and regularly check in on employee wellbeing.

Isolation and Disengagement

Another potential downside of flexible and remote work is increased feelings of isolation and disengagement from the team. When employees have fewer opportunities for in-person interaction, they may start to feel disconnected from their coworkers and the larger organization.

Loneliness is consistently one of the top struggles reported by remote workers. In a 2021 study by Workest, 24% of remote employees said feelings of loneliness were the biggest challenge they experienced while working from home.

Beyond the negative impacts on individual mental health, isolation can also lead to disengagement and reduced productivity over time. A 2022 Gallup study found that only 32% of US employees were engaged, and the actively disengaged share rose to 18% – a new record high.

Fostering virtual community and facilitating regular social interactions – even if they‘re online – is key to keeping remote and flextime workers feeling connected. Many companies are also exploring hybrid work models to provide the best of both worlds.

Equity and Fairness Concerns

Finally, it‘s important to be mindful of potential equity issues when implementing flexible work policies. Not all roles and teams may be able to accommodate the same level of flexibility, which could lead to feelings of unfairness or favoritism.

For example, customer-facing or shift-based roles may have less latitude for adjusting schedules than back-office knowledge workers. Employees with caregiving responsibilities may need more flexibility than those without. And some workers may not have a suitable home environment for remote work.

Top considerations for ensuring equitable flexible work include:

  • Setting clear, transparent policies that apply evenly to all eligible roles/teams
  • Providing necessary equipment and resources for home offices
  • Offering schedule accommodations for employees with demonstrated needs
  • Regularly collecting feedback to surface any disparities in experience or access

Approaching flexible work through the lens of DEI is vital for creating policies that work for everyone and contribute to a culture of belonging.

Surprising Outcomes of Flexible Work

Increased Working Hours

One of the most counterintuitive findings about flexible and remote work is that it often leads to employees working longer hours overall. While the assumption is often that people will work less without direct oversight, the opposite tends to be true.

A 2022 study by software company Qatalog found that nearly one third of hybrid workers were putting in an extra day or more of unpaid overtime at home each week. Another study by VPN provider NordVPN Teams found that remote employees worked an average of 102 hours extra each year in 2021, compared to 2020.

Several factors contribute to this "overtime creep":

  • Lack of clear boundaries between work and home life
  • Pressure to be virtually present and responsive
  • Desire to prove productivity while working remotely
  • Time saved on commuting being reallocated to work

While some overtime can be a sign of engagement, too much can quickly lead to burnout. Setting realistic workload expectations, tracking hours worked, and normalizing time off are all important for preventing overwork in a flexible environment.

The Positive Ripple Effects

Beyond benefiting individual employees and employers, flexible work can have far-reaching positive effects on families, communities, and even the environment. When implemented at scale, flex work has the potential to ease traffic congestion, reduce carbon emissions, and support working parents.

Illustrating this ripple effect, a study by the American Sociological Association found that employees with flexible schedules experienced improved sleep quality, more exercise, and better self-reported health. Surprisingly, these benefits extended to the employees‘ children as well, particularly for teens.

"Parents‘ flexible work arrangements may be a key way to reduce stress and thereby promote the healthy development and adjustment of young people," concluded the researchers. When parents can tend to their personal needs and aren‘t rushing to the office, it creates a less stressful home environment.

On the sustainability front, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) estimates that if employees with compatible jobs worked from home just half the time, the greenhouse gas reduction would be the equivalent of taking 10 million cars off the road.

The Shift Away from Sick Days

Perhaps most surprising is emerging evidence that flexible and remote work may be changing attitudes and behaviors around sick days. In the past, staying home sick meant not working. But now, many remote workers simply power through from home – even when they‘re not feeling well.

Relatedly, in a 2022 survey by Skynova, 54% of managers said employee sick time had decreased since the COVID-19 pandemic. Among employees, 61% said they worked while sick more than once during the previous year.

There are several potential reasons for this shift:

  • Pressure to demonstrate productivity and "show up" when working remotely
  • Lack of a commute making it easier to work while mildly ill
  • Ability to take short breaks as needed throughout the day
  • Desire to save limited PTO for vacations or family needs

While occasional remote work while sick may be okay for some, it‘s important for organizations and managers to actively encourage employees to rest and recharge when they‘re not feeling well. Failing to take sick time can prolong illnesses, reduce productivity, and contribute to burnout over time.

Best Practices for Implementing Flexible Work Schedules

So, how can organizations set their employees up for success with flexible work arrangements? Based on learnings from the past few years, here are some best practices to consider:

  1. Develop clear guidelines and policies. Spell out eligibility criteria, core hours, communication norms, and performance expectations in a written flex work policy. Ensure everyone understands the "rules of engagement."

  2. Focus on results, not face time. Shift performance discussions away from hours worked and toward objectives and key results (OKRs). Give employees clear goals and metrics, then trust them to deliver in the way that works best for them.

  3. Provide the right tools and resources. Ensure remote and flex workers have the equipment and software they need to work productively and collaboratively from anywhere. This may include laptops, headsets, collaboration apps, VPNs, and more.

  4. Set boundaries and model healthy habits. Encourage employees to fully disconnect from work outside of designated hours, and model this behavior as a leader. Some companies even have "no email after 7pm" policies to protect personal time.

  5. Create intentional opportunities for connection. Combat isolation by hosting regular virtual team-building events, co-working sessions, and casual check-ins. Consider adopting a hybrid model that brings people together in person periodically.

  6. Communicate, communicate, communicate. Establish communication norms for your team, leveraging a mix of synchronous and asynchronous channels. Share information broadly and often to keep everyone aligned.

  7. Gather feedback and adjust as needed. Regularly survey employees on what‘s working and what‘s not with your flexible work program. Use that feedback to continually iterate and improve your approach over time.

By following these guidelines, organizations can create flexible work arrangements that support employee wellbeing, productivity, and engagement for the long haul.

The Future of Flexible Work

As we look ahead, it‘s clear that flexible work is here to stay. What started as a pandemic necessity has fundamentally reshaped workplace norms and employee expectations. According to AT&T research, 81% of hybrid or remote workers say they plan to stay that way long-term. And 71% of business leaders say flexible work will be very important for their organization‘s success in the future.

Some experts even predict that the rise of flexible work could prompt a larger rethinking of the 40-hour workweek altogether. Several countries, including Iceland, Japan, Belgium, and Scotland, are already experimenting with shorter workweeks, aiming to improve work-life balance without sacrificing productivity or pay.

Other emerging trends on the horizon include:

  • The rise of "workcations" and extended travel stays enabled by remote work
  • Increased adoption of virtual and augmented reality tools for immersive collaboration
  • More companies going "remote-first" and ditching physical offices altogether
  • Growing demand for flexible schedules as a form of currency beyond pay and benefits

But perhaps the biggest shift will be in mindset – away from work as a place you go, and toward something you do. As author and futurist Jacob Morgan puts it: "Flexible work is more than just working from home, or working a different schedule. It‘s about working smarter and empowering your people to deliver their best and most impactful work, regardless of where or when."

Conclusion

As we‘ve explored, flexible work schedules offer significant benefits for employees and employers alike – from improved work-life balance and productivity to cost savings and competitive advantage. But they also come with challenges around communication, isolation, overwork, and equity that require intentional management to overcome.

By crafting clear policies, providing the right tools and resources, and continuously gathering feedback, organizations can create flexible work programs that bring out the best in their people. The key is finding the right balance for your unique workforce and culture.

One thing is certain: the future of work is flexible. The companies that will thrive in the years ahead are those that embrace this reality and adapt their strategies to support the evolving needs and expectations of employees. Because at the end of the day, when workers have the autonomy and trust to do their best work, everyone wins.