The Loop

Work Hour Expectations

Filed under: Benefits

Three scenarios have occurred over recent years that have changed employer expectations in terms of work schedule flexibility.

The first was Millennials joining the workforce. In 2017, this demographic became the largest generation in the current workforce, representing more than one-in-three workers. Millennials introduced more racial and ethnic diversity into the work environment than ever before. However, they first entered the labor market during an economic downturn, when jobs were scarce and wages were low. Hence, they switched jobs often and pledged scant loyalty to employers (and vice versa). Once the economy recovered, this put Millennials in the driver’s seat: Companies now compete for quality candidates and treat them well to retain them – which means increased flexibility in work arrangements.

The second influential factor has been the COVID-19 pandemic. Many employers, particularly in white-collar industries – had no choice but to allow employees to work from home. Remote offices were set up and many worked for months if not years before employers could safely insist they return to the office. However, some privileges – once granted – are difficult to revoke. The vast majority (76%, according to Pew Research) of these workers say they prefer to work from home. While the job market remains tight and unemployment numbers low, many employers have no choice but to accommodate this preference in order to avoid attrition.

The most recent scenario is the flood of Generation Z entering the job market – which has largely coincided with the pandemic. First off, because teenagers were considered relatively immune to COVID-19, they were in high demand for many unskilled yet essential jobs such as grocery store clerks, food service, retail, and delivery drivers. That put members of this generation in the so-called “driver’s seat” before they even turned 21. Since then, factors such as the pandemic-diminished college experience and higher wages combined to launch more Gen Zers into the job market. This work experience offers a strong foundation of skills and crisis-management adaptability for future employment. 

All of these scenarios have converged to create a relatively sustainable worker’s job market. At some point employers will likely need fewer workers or begin significant layoffs, but even then certain expectations may remain regarding flexibility in work hours and location. Studies show that competitive wages, company culture, and flexible schedules are key among jobseekers and will likely continue to be over the long term.

Remember, Millennials learned to live on less due to their difficulties initially entering the job market. Gen Z has a whole different perspective, and they are willing to wait on the sidelines or continue changing jobs until they get the type of work experience they are looking for, regardless of pay. This means that as more young adults join the workforce and move into senior positions, this new set of values and expectations will become the new normal.

Employer Expectations

This confluence of circumstances does not leave employers powerless. Quite the opposite. In accordance with the theory of evolution, companies that adapt to these new values are likely to persevere, and even thrive in the employment market.

The term “flexi-time” was introduced globally in the late 1960s as a way to relieve issues related to transit and commute times. It became even more popular in the 1970s as more women – including working mothers – entered the workforce. Companies introduced flexible working hours to attract more women into the workforce and improve work-life balance.

Given today’s work-form-home (WFH) staffing model, employers no longer have the opportunity to observe how long each worker is in the office. Therefore the key to managing a satisfying balance between workers’ expectations of flexibility and employers’ need for accountability, is to evolve expectations from a quantity to quality measure. In terms of work hours, if employees can achieve the same (or higher) level of productivity working fewer hours than in the past, will an employer find that acceptable? And, does that mean wages should be reduced to reflect fewer hours worked?

The answer lies in whether businesses pay their workers for their time or their productivity. If the former holds, then what difference does it make if a worker spends a large part of his day socializing with co-workers or engaging in social media – if he delivers the level of productivity expected? On the other hand, if an employer regards pay as connected to performance or productivity, then what does it matter how many hours he has to work to accomplish that?

Consider, too, that if employers increase productivity expectations in order to match a 40-hour workweek, then they are likely to spend a lot more time and resources recruiting people who can work within this new productivity model. The reality is that some people can do more in less time, but that should not detract from others who can deliver the same level of performance within the regular 40-hour workweek.

One labor expert cited that workers tend to be the most efficient and focused for 25 hours a week. Workers who can tap into that 25 hours without the need to while away the remaining 15 should perhaps be able to do so, even if that means less time in the office. Others may prefer a more relaxed atmosphere in which they can utilize the entire 40-hour week to accomplish their tasks.

Some workers may need 40 hours but yearn for the 25-hour workweek. To accommodate, employers might consider training courses to help workers learn to prioritize better, procrastinate less, and use their time more wisely.

Be mindful that employers may need to move away from a one-size-fits-all solution. To hire and retain talented and engaged workers, company policies should be flexible to accommodate personal strengths, habits, and work ethics to create an environment that brings out the best performance in each worker.

Furthermore, many workers no longer need to be available at the office or tied to their desk to be available for work, given the technology we have for connectivity. Since many white-collar industries employ people for their intellectual capital, perhaps they can be just as impactful sharing thoughts and ideas with colleagues while going for a walk in lieu of sitting at a conference table.

Bear in mind that many people who work from home abandon the 9-to-5 concept in favor of an availability and as-needed work model. This means they may take a few hours off midday for personal time but work in the evening, and take calls or respond to emails at all times of the day. In many cases, this leads to working far more than the expected hours per week. It can be indicative of a workaholic mindset, but by the same token it is also a symptom of engagement. Even with workers who have the ultimate flexibility of when and where they work, it is important for direct managers to stay connected with these workers and mindful of their work-life balance, as well as mental and physical health.

Moving into 2023, companies are seeking ways to hire and retain quality workers, nurture engagement, and reduce operating expenses. As we move further away from the nine-to-five, Monday-to-Friday workweek, more employers may consider how to evolve their work hour expectations from one of quantity to quality.

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