The impact of flexibility, benefits and top management support

By Tuvana Rua, associate professor of management January 30, 2024

Tuvana Rua

DEI initiatives had been in an upward trend since 2019 with many companies creating task forces and new positions for DEI to ensure that they were on the right path to create company cultures that are inviting for talent with diverse backgrounds and that promote equitable and inclusive environments for those individuals once they choose to be part of these companies.

Unfortunately, since summer of 2023, these initiatives have slowed down due to judicial decisions and the political climate. Furthermore, flexible work arrangements, which has been an essential DEI strategy that has allowed many companies to significantly diversify their workforce, have also been under threat with many corporations reversing policies and requiring their employees to return to the office space (Subramanian & Washington, 2022). For women in the workforce, these trends are further disheartening as they also happen to coincide with the aftermath of the COVID-19 Pandemic, which showed the importance of effective DEI policies and especially flexible work arrangements in helping women come back to and stay in the workforce and advance to higher level positions in organizations.

The COVID-19 pandemic led to an unequal exodus from organizations by female workers (Gupta, 2020), who were torn between family obligations that got exasperated due to the pandemic and the disappearance of the separation between work and home with the two spaces merging into one. Yet, women came soaring back into the workforce after the pandemic, even surpassing their pre-pandemic employment numbers (Ito, 2023), thanks to the remote and flexible work opportunities that became prominent during the pandemic, which remained intact in many organizations after the most restrictive phase of the pandemic was over. What has been specifically encouraging in this trend is the significant participation in the age group of 30 to 45, with 800,000 to 1,3 million women in this age group joining the workforce, which is an age group that is typically associated with taking a leave from work as child rearing responsibilities bound many women home during this phase in their lives (Terrazas, 2023).

As women in the workforce continue to struggle more than their male counterparts due to child-care struggles (Depillis et al., 2022; Kindelan, 2021), one of the things that they need and seek is flexible work arrangements that can help them navigate the demands of a successful career while being present for their families in the ways they desire. Our recent empirical study (Andreassi et al, under review) further points to the importance of company policies and supervisor support in women’s decision not only to stay in the workforce but also to remain in their current organizations. In our research, we discovered that organizational leaders play a crucial role in effectively implementing work-life policies. We also found that the support of top management significantly increases the likelihood of female employees using the necessary forms of flexibility, which, in turn, contributes to employee retention. Our study further emphasizes that the effectiveness of a flexibility policy should be measured not just by its availability but also by the actual usage as top management support becomes crucial during unexpected crises or unpredictable changes in female employees’ lives.

Based on these findings, we suggest that organizations identify and regularly assess the usage of the specific forms of flexibility their employees need. This allows organizations to focus their efforts on providing benefits that are likely to be utilized and positively impact their female employees' decisions to stay in the workforce and the companies they work for. Offering flexibility bundles is also recommended, as some female employees may require multiple forms of flexibility such that creating a supportive work environment involves leaders actively supporting female employees' control over the location, workload, timing, and continuity of their work with a special emphasis on promoting the use of less predictable and short-term time-off options for unexpected events in employees’ lives. This support should extend to all levels of the organization with leaders encouraging lower-level managers to be sensitive to their female employees' flexibility needs.

In order to sustain the levels of gains that we have made in female employment and career advancement in organizations after the pandemic, specifically in the age groups that usually gets pushed out of the workforce in the absence of these types of policies, it is essential that organizations do not succumb to the trends of eliminating DEI policies that have proven to be effective and continue allowing their female employees to have control over their employment through flexible work arrangements. Otherwise, we risk not only losing the progress that has been made but also potentially push a new generation of women to make the impossible decision of choosing between their families and their careers.

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