The Truth About “Flexible Work Arrangements” (and How Most Employers Get It Wrong)

For much of my career, I worked in office environments that scoffed at the idea of flexible work arrangements.

I would beg my employers to allow me to work from home on occasion, knowing that the freedom to choose my own hours and working environment would make a huge impact on my productivity and happiness. 

But it was to no avail.

My employers were convinced that working from home would lead to a massive drop in productivity, and insinuated that we employees couldn’t be trusted if we weren’t physically supervised. 

Ultimately, my desire for flexibility in the workplace drove me to start my own business and become a digital nomad. That happened in 2019, and just a year later, Covid would come and show my former employers (and lots of other businesses) that they were wrong. 

Many workers could do their jobs from home, productively and effectively. And once given permission, employees around the world realized all of the benefits that come with flexibility in the workplace. 

But here we are, years after the start of the pandemic, and it seems like the concept of workplace flexibility is more confusing and fraught than it was before. 

So let’s take a deep, honest look at the state of workplace flexibility—what does it mean in this day and age, and how exactly are employers (and employees, to some extent) getting it wrong?

 

Defining workplace flexibility

Generally, workplace flexibility refers to a number of different policies that companies can put in place to provide more choice and freedom for work staff. 

Flexibility in the workplace can come in many different forms—some of which have very little impact on employees, and others that can be truly life-changing. 

Here are some of the most common types of workplace flexibility that companies offer:

 

Choose where you work 

Since the Covid pandemic, this may be the most common type of work flexibility out there. Unlike my previous jobs, many employers now allow employees to work remotely, or to participate in a hybrid system (like one or two days in the office each week). 

While there are still some employees and employers who prefer in-office work, it’s clear that many people prefer the flexibility that comes with being able to work from home (or wherever). 

And there are lots of benefits to having a choice on where you work: 

  • Less time and money spent commuting 
  • Improved sleep schedule 
  • Ability to choose (and save money) on meals 
  • More time with family, friends, and pets 
  • Ability to do chores and errands on breaks 

In other words, work-life balance just gets a lot better for people who are allowed flexibility like this. 

 

Choose when you work 

Though perhaps not as common as hybrid or remote work, some companies are allowing their staff to work non-traditional office hours. 

The best managers (in my opinion) instate a “just get your work done” policy—they don’t care when you put in the work, as long as your tasks are done before deadlines and done to quality. 

This might mean you could work evenings if you’re busy during the day, or select the hours that you are most productive. You also might try “condensed” or “compressed” workweeks, when you do all of your work in three or four days, thus extending the number of days you have off. 

 

Unlimited or extended vacation

Americans get way less paid vacation days than many other countries out there—many people get less than a week, while one-third of first-year employees get a mere 10 to 14 days, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

Though it’s still quite uncommon, many businesses have discovered that offering workers more flexibility with their time off leads to a happier, more productive workforce. 

Some companies may have more generous paid leave options, and others may fully offer “unlimited PTO”—though in this case, “unlimited” often means “a reasonable amount.” 

 

Choosing the type of work you want 

Of all the flexible work arrangements on this list, this one may be the least common. But one way that employers can provide more workplace flexibility is by giving their employees autonomy in the kinds of work that they do. 

When I worked in agencies, I was often given clients I didn’t want to work with or required to take on tasks that filled me with dread. (Read more about how I sold my soul to work.) 

I would have likely stayed longer at those jobs if I had been given more flexibility to choose what accounts and projects I worked on. Of course, in many workplaces, there are certain jobs that have to be done, even if no one wants to do them. 

But employers that can find ways to bring in more flexibility and choice in daily tasks and job descriptions stand to retain more of their workforce. 

 

Why isn’t work flexibility more common?

With all these obvious benefits of flexible work arrangements, it’s surprising that not every employer is on board. 

Some companies are getting it right, but it seems like even more are trying to offer workplace flexibility and failing. 

There are a few reasons for that. 

 

Since 2020, everyone has been confused about workplace flexibility

Flexible work was on the rise before 2020, but the pandemic put it into hyperdrive. 

In a matter of just a few days, thousands of businesses around the world started offering work-from-home and hybrid models—because they had to. 

While I’m happy that the pandemic brought about more flexible work options overall, the way this happened was not ideal. 

Companies did not have the systems in place to support at-home workers, and the general working culture was not prepared to offer flexible work arrangements as a long-term option. 

As a result, companies and their employees were left to figure it out on their own, and that got messy quickly. 

Some companies, like Spotify, Allstate, and Dropbox, adopted permanent flexible work options. 

Other companies, like Goldman Sachs and Netflix, demanded employees return to the office, despite protests from employees and concerns about the safety of returning to work while the pandemic was still a health threat. 

And other companies, like Amazon and Apple, couldn’t seem to make up their mind, first championing workplace flexibility, then demanding workers return to the office, then compromising on hybrid options after pushback. 

The result of all this confusion is that there is no set standard for employers to follow, and no guidelines for employees to use as they seek out flexible work arrangements. 

If flexible work arrangements are something you want in your next job, be sure to thoroughly investigate the rules around working remotely at any company you’re considering. If the business doesn’t have thoughtful, clearly defined policies around workplace flexibility, that’s a red flag. 

 

Some people in middle management just don’t like work flexibility

Employees aren’t the only ones who benefit from workplace flexibility. A study from Airtasker showed that remote employees actually worked more than in-office employees, and another from FlexJobs found that 80% of employees are more loyal to companies when they have flexible work arrangements. 

On top of that, employers can attract better talent, cut back on expenses, and retain their best employees with flexible work options. So why aren’t they all jumping at the opportunity to offer these benefits? 

The answer may be that there are certain types of workers who not only prefer in-office work, but also want everyone else to be forced to join them in the building. 

I could explain my theories on who these people are, but this TikTok does a much better job of it than I could: 

@jordanreviewsittt They just love the office #workhumor #officehumor #returntooffice #wfh ♬ original sound – Jordanreviewsittt

 

Without equity in the workplace, there is no flexibility

There’s a deeper issue surrounding flexibility in the workplace, and it doesn’t have to do with hybrid offices or telecommuting. 

In many companies, the biggest obstacle to workplace flexibility is tied to a lack of equity in the workplace. 

To achieve equity in the workplace, companies have to ensure that every resource and opportunity within the company is available to every employee, regardless of their gender, racial background, religious beliefs, sexual orientation, or ability. 

While there are laws in the U.S. that forbid discrimination in the workplace, these vary state by state.

For example, more than half of the states in America do not offer explicit workplace protections based on sex and gender, and in many places in the U.S., it’s legal to fire someone for being LGBTQ. 

If a company can’t guarantee equal protection and opportunity for its entire workforce, then any attempts it makes at offering flexible work arrangements will be insufficient. 

If employees feel they have to conceal who they are, they cannot possibly enjoy the flexibility and freedom of their workplace, even if they are allowed to work from home or choose their hours. 

 

Workplace flexibility should be a right, not a privilege

There is another reason why flexible workplaces aren’t as common or successful as we want them to be—and it has to do with our culture at large. 

For too long, employers have used flexible work arrangements as a carrot on a stick. 

They have dangled the opportunity to work from home or choose your own hours as a “privilege that must be earned.” This inherently implies that flexibility is something that can be stripped away as a form of punishment. 

This notion is rooted in the long and sordid history of work in modern society. Our entire employment system is based on the idea that work is not to be enjoyed, but rather suffered through—many people believe, openly or not, that enjoyable work shouldn’t be well paid. 

This cultural mindset means employees today cannot feel secure in the flexibility offered to them. It feels as though it may be taken away or restricted at any moment—because it genuinely may be! 

The most successful flexible work arrangements are those that come with no threats or stipulations. Companies that see workplace flexibility not as a privilege, but as a necessity for their business, are the ones that stand to gain the most from this deal with their employees. 

And unfortunately, it’s still rare to find a business that sees it that way. 

I’ve pointed out a number of the challenges to flexible work arrangements in this article, but I don’t want you to lose hope. 

There are more companies now than ever that understand the value and benefits of offering workplace flexibility. I believe this trend will only continue to grow in the years to come. 

For now, if you’re struggling to find flexible workplace options, you might want to check out some of the resources we’ve put together around other ways of working that come with more freedom: