Formal flexible work arrangements are not the norm in American businesses, and it’s often up to individual managers to decide whether their employees should be able to shift their hours, work from home, or participate in other flex options.

Fortunately, even managers who have negative perceptions of flexible work arrangements (FWAs) can change their minds, with the right incentives and exposure.

That is one conclusion of the recent Community, Work & Family journal article “Manager attitudes concerning flexible work arrangements: fixed or changeable?“, written by Stephen Sweet, sociology professor at Ithaca College; Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes, director of the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College; and Jacquelyn Boone James, director of research at the Sloan Center.

Managers are gatekeepers for FWAs

The authors point out that access to diverse FWAs remains limited, uneven, and out of reach to most U.S. workers, especially those who need them most. Even when organizations have formal flex work policies, the study says, “managers serve as gatekeepers and make decisions that might restrict access and, in some circumstances, even penalize use. Conversely, managers can use discretion to provide access even in the absence of policy.” Clearly, managers’ attitudes toward FWAs can be critical to their implementation. The study sought to determine the extent to which managers’ attitudes toward FWAs stay constant over time; how the experience of supervising flex workers may shape those attitudes; and the extent to which training and recognition might influence them.

To investigate these questions, the researchers followed a group of managers at a large financial services company for a year, conducting multiple surveys on their attitudes about FWAs. About eight months into the study, half of the managers were also shown a report that said other managers in the company tended to support flexibility within the organization.

The company launched its “Supervisor-Promoted Flexibility” program in 2011, offering detailed training and a variety of communication strategies to encourage managers to see FWAs “as supporting performance outcomes rather than as a means to accommodate employees’ individual needs,” the study said. The company also encouraged all employees to explore FWA opportunities.

“These messages focused on the merits of engaging in discussions concerning work schedule and work location fit, the potential benefits of expanding FWAs, and justifications emphasizing anticipated performance benefits,” the study said.

Managers’ feelings about flexible work can change over time

Seven months after the launch of the flexibility program, the researchers began their series of six bimonthly surveys of company managers. The results of those surveys support a belief that managers’ feelings about flexible work can change over time—although they may become more positive or more negative.

“This finding presents reason for considerable optimism that it may be possible to shift initially skeptical managers to more favorable positions,” the study says. “However, it also provides evidence to suggest that managers who were initially inclined to believe in the merits of FWAs may level their expectations over time.”

Specifically, the study found that experience supervising workers in FWAs corresponded with more favorable perspectives on schedule flexibility.

“It is especially notable that as managers gained greater experience in supervising workers in flexible schedule arrangements, it corresponded with declining concern regarding the negative outcomes of schedule flexibility,” the study says. “The same is not true for location flexibility, where experiences may actually make managers slightly more concerned with negative consequences over time.”

Encouragement and training are key

The study also found that different kinds of encouragement or incentives are likely to increase favorable attitudes toward FWAs among managers.

“Encouragement can take the form of training initiatives, which predicted changes in positive perspectives on location flexibility,” the study says. “Career incentives also predicted changes in positive perspectives on location flexibility.

“An additional strategy to leverage attitude changes can involve mobilizing normative standards. We demonstrated that when managers are shown that their peers tend to be in support of FWAs, this corresponds with increasingly favorable attitudes concerning the positive consequences of schedule flexibility.”

In an article about the study, Sweet said this potential transformation in attitudes is important to consider.

“Some managers have a jaundiced view of flexible work arrangements because they think it will make their own work harder and is not in their career interest,” he said. “Our research indicates that if a company has an effective communications strategy, where it can explain to managers not only in an abstract way that flexible work options are beneficial, but that their peers support these policies, it can transform manager sentiments toward embracing FWAs.”

The study noted that FWAs can “reconfigure work,” which is helpful to employees who have caregiving responsibilities. But offering flexibility is a good step for businesses for many other reasons, too.

“Our interest is in thinking about how to expand support for flexible work, primarily because it can help workers manage the many demands they have off the job,” Sweet said. “But freeing up time for an employee to handle their family affairs can also free up energy for them to be more effective on the job. And if an employee can work from home, that frees up expensive office space.”

With benefits to both workers and a company’s bottom line, more businesses may be inclined to explore the impact their managers’ attitudes have on flexibility.

What are your reactions to the results of this study? In your experience, how important is a manager’s support to an offering of work flexibility? What has caused managers to change their minds about flex? Please share your ideas in the comments section.

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