Content prepared by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College

Workplace Flexibility has sometimes been viewed as benefiting either the employer or the employee, rather than being an option that can benefit both the employer and the employee. Barriers to implementing workplace flexibility arise when either the employer perceives that there may be costs or inconveniences associated with implementing flexible work arrangements that outweigh the benefits, or when employees perceive that taking advantage of available flexible work options may have negative consequences in terms of their position within the organization.



A "face time" culture, excessive workload, manager skepticism, customer demands, and fear of negative career consequences are among the barriers that prevent employees from taking advantage of policies they might otherwise use. (24) In some cases employees may not use flexibility because they are unaware of the options available to them (13) while "in some companies that have flexibility policies on the books, employees are implicitly discouraged from using them for fear of risking denial of promotion, termination, and disdain from co-workers who resent having to pick up extra work." (23)

In a 2009 study of access to flexible work options, '"40.6% of the respondents felt that there might be negative career consequences associated with the use of flexible work options (those responding "somewhat agree," "agree," or "strongly agree"). ...Younger Boomers and Traditionalists are more likely to strongly disagree/disagree that people who use flexible work options are viewed as being less serious about their career." (67)

Perceptions that Employees Who Use Flexibility Are Viewed as Less Serious About Their Careers by Generation*
* Item developed by Thompson, Beauvais & Lyness (1999).

A survey of a nationally representative group of highly qualified women [defined as those with a graduate degree, a professional degree, or a high-honors undergraduate degree] found that 35% of employees report that although their workplaces offer flexible work arrangements, they feel the flexible policies are not usable because of "various aspects of their organizations' cultures that effectively penalize people who take advantage of work-life policies. Telecommuting appears to be most stigmatized, with 39% of women reporting some form of tacit resistance to it, followed by job sharing and part-time work. Of flexible work arrangements in general, 21% report that 'there is an unspoken rule at my workplace that people who use these options will not be promoted.'" (49)



Employers participating in the 2007 National Study of Business Strategy and Workforce Development reported on possible barriers to implementing workplace flexibility. Employers were concerned to a moderate/great extent about abuse of policies (42.3%), the reactions of customers and clients (41.2%), difficulties with supervising employees working in a flexible manner (40.9%), loss of productivity (40.6%), and treating all employees equally (40.1%). (70)

In a 2009 report comparing responses of HR managers in U.S. state agencies with those of private for-profit and nonprofit organizations, the most common barriers to implementing workplace flexibility cited by state agencies were: difficulty with supervision (52.3%), concerns about treating employees equally (50.8%), concerns about reactions of clients/customers (49.6%), concerns about abuse of policies (49.2%), and concerns about co-worker resentment (41.3%). Although these were all a factor in the private sector as well, the private sector reported lower barriers in general to the adoption of flexibility benefits. (62)

Top Barriers to Establishing Flexible Work Options,
Percent of Respondents Citing Barriers to Flexible Work Options to a "Moderate" or "Great" Extent

Some costs that have been associated with implementing work-life balance policies include:

  • Direct costs of policies that involve payments, such as childcare subsidies or paid parental leave.
  • Costs of equipment to facilitate working at home.
  • Personnel costs associated with the number of staff needed to maintain coverage.
  • Management costs comprising indirect costs such as investigating and implementing new work-life balance policy systems, training costs associated with changing processes or culture.
  • Maintenance or transaction costs for managers in implementing work-life balance practices.
  • Productivity costs, such as disruption costs for temporarily filling absent colleagues' posts, temporary reduction in productivity from disruption, and reduced morale of those employees not benefiting. (93)



Many organizations have successfully implemented workplace flexibility policies through carefully designed and well-thought-out programs. Implementing flexibility programs requires a shift in overall firm culture, norms, and values that cannot be measured in statistics or balance sheets. (23) Many organizations have been successful in creating a culture of flexibility.

Survey Findings

"Approximately half of the employees who participated in a recent study agreed/strongly agreed that the members of their work teams were supportive of flexible work options." For example, 55% reported that the members of their work teams are aware of the flexible work options available to them, and 51% reported that their work team members are comfortable discussing their needs for flexibility. (68)

Perceptions of Work Team Support for Flexible Workplaces *
Percent Agree/Strongly Agree
* Items developed by the Sloan Center on Aging & Work, 2007.

"35% of employers say they plan to provide more flexible work arrangements in 2010, compared to 31% last year. These arrangements include: alternate schedules—come in early and leave early or come in later and leave later—73%; telecommuting options 41%; compressed workweeks—work the same hours, but in fewer days—32%; summer hours 18%; job sharing 13%; sabbaticals 6%, "according to a 2010 CareerBuilder survey of more than 2,700 human resource professionals. (19)

Similarly, "86% of companies responding expect to conduct some form of needs assessment [about work-life issues] in 2010. Three-fifths (61%) expect to survey their employees, and over a third plan to conduct focus groups (36%) or a benchmarking audit (34%). Fully 57% of companies will obtain feedback from managers and a third (32%) will review promotion, retention, and exit data," as found in another 2010 survey of employers. (90)

Despite the challenges of implementing workplace flexibility in the manufacturing sector, "there are at least two strategies that some manufacturing companies have used to increase workplace flexibility. First, some manufacturing firms encourage workers to be trained not only in their own tasks but also in the tasks of workers "upstream" and "downstream" from them. Increasing the breadth of training can help ensure that workers understand how their inputs were created and how their output will be used, and may contribute to increased productivity. This modern manufacturing practice has the benefit of ensuring that workers can more effectively fill in or otherwise compensate for one another in case a worker cannot be present at a particular time." (26)

"Some argue that while flexible scheduling may work in large firms, each member of a small business team can be critical to business operations, making it too costly to implement such practices. At the same time, one challenge with flexible work schedules can be difficulty ensuring that workers are productive while they work from home. Because managers and employees may interact more frequently at small firms, it may be easier for these firms to implement such practices and still be able to monitor a worker's productivity. Data from the National Study of Employers suggest that while some of these concerns may be valid, in fact small firms (50-99 employees) provide as much as or more flexibility to their employees as do large firms (1,000 and more employees)." (26)