Flexibility in the workplace has always existed. For a long time, however, it was doled out to the privileged few or acquired with much effort via accommodation requests. Often, neurodivergent and disabled people were denied flexibility – it was not seen as a “reasonable” accommodation. However, the pandemic exposed just how possible the supposedly “impossible” levels of flexibility, in fact, were. Since then, flexible working has become an essential point of conversation about the future of work.
The pandemic disruption revealed that the “rare luxury” of flexibility was, in many cases, a fake scarcity. With excuses out of the way, the increased flexibility had benefitted neurodivergent and disabled employees, for whom unemployment went down due to remote and hybrid work opportunities.
But these gains appear to be threatened in the post-pandemic work environment. Yes, some organizations chose to become all-remote, all-flexible. But many others are trying to return to pre-pandemic norms – which results in employee resentment and turnover, and threatens the gains in disability employment.
One argument for the return to a pre-pandemic, less flexible way of work is that it is “better for productivity and organizational culture.” However, research convincingly demonstrated that flexible work is a powerful tool for companies looking to attract and retain top talent, boost productivity, and increase employee engagement, satisfaction, and morale. And flexibility does not have to threaten the culture – in many ways, it can improve it, making organizations more diverse and people-centric.
There are also organizations trying to force office workers back using an argument that since production and customer service employees “can’t” have flexibility, defined as remote work, the office workers should not have it either. This argument is also greatly flawed. There are many types of flexibility that can align with different job types, employee needs – including neurodivergent needs – and company policies. Productivity is not supported by trying to force sameness on people in different jobs, life situations, and with different talents and needs, even if it is framed as the (misguided) pretense of “equality.” It is more productive to pursue equity and ways to introduce forms of flexibility that can support different types of employees.
The many faces of flexibility
Ellen Ernst Kossek, a professor of management at Purdue University, has been a leading voice in advancing flexibility in the workplace. She and her colleagues identified five main types of flexibility: schedule, place, continuity, workload, and mode. Each of these can uniquely benefit both the organizations and different groups of employees, including neurodivergent employees.
Schedule flexibility refers to the ability to adjust work hours to fit an employee’s needs. For example, a parent may need to leave early to pick up their child from school, a dispraxic employee may benefit from a later start time to avoid rush hour traffic. Others may appreciate a compressed week (fewer and longer days) or the ability to swap shifts or choose one’s shifts. Importantly, shift choice flexibility is possible for occupational groups that sometimes are excluded from flexible work consideration, such as manufacturing workers or shift medical care personnel.
Schedule flexibility is especially important for neurodivergent employees who may have unique scheduling needs due to differences in well-being and sleep patterns. It may enable those dealing with multiple challenges, such as disabilities and caregiving, to support themselves.
Place flexibility refers to the ability to work from a location other than the office. This may include working from home, working from anywhere in the world, and sometimes working from satellite offices of employee choice rather than from the “main office.” This can be helpful for employees with a wide range of needs, including those who may have difficulty commuting or who need a quiet environment to focus. For example, an employee with sensory processing issues may greatly benefit from working in a quieter environment than a busy office.
Remote work has become increasingly popular during the pandemic. It has proven to be an effective way to include and support the productivity of neurodivergent employees. And because it was shown to work, it will be much more difficult to refuse to see it as a reasonable accommodation.
While schedule and place flexibility receive the most attention, there are other forms of flexibility that can be greatly valued by employees and supportive of organizational outcomes.
Continuity flexibility refers to the ability to take a leave of absence for a period of time, without losing one’s job and, in many cases, while retaining all or a significant percentage of one’s salary. Most countries in the world provide paid maternity leaves, and many also support paternity leaves, but there are many other valuable types of leaves, including sabbaticals, mental health leaves, family, sick and education leaves, and adult gap years. All forms of continuity flexibility can support employee health as well as organizational engagement and commitment – especially if offered as a tool to prevent burnout rather than as a last resort for burnt-out employees.
The continuity flexibility can help employees with care responsibilities and many different health conditions, from arthritis to depression. In addition, for autistic employees, it can be invaluable in preventing autistic burnout.
Workload flexibility refers to the ability to work full-time, part-time, or job share. This can be beneficial for employees who may not be able to work a traditional full-time schedule due to other life commitments or disabilities. For example, an employee with intense sensory sensitivities may benefit from working part-time to avoid sensory overload. Job-sharing is favored by women, especially mothers focused on balancing family and career. But job sharing can also be an attractive option for neurodivergent employees, especially if combined with job crafting to focus on the type of work most aligned with their abilities.
With planning, workload flexibility is possible across all types of occupations. Moreover, it can be combined with continuity flexibility to accommodate a wide range of personal circumstances and needs.
Mode flexibility refers to the ability to work in different modes, such as in-person, remotely, or in a hybrid model. This can enable work for employees who need a certain mode to work on their best or to work at all. For example, an employee with social anxiety may find remote work significantly less stressful. On the other hand, someone who needs the presence of other people to support structure, stimulation, and motivation might be best served by in-person or hybrid environments with a substantial share of in-person work. Work mode flexibility can help neurodivergent employees find the approach best aligned to their strengths to support productivity in their work.
There are many ways to implement hybrid work, which can be tailored to specific needs of individuals and organizations. One of the ways to classify types of remote work from the organizational perspective is this:
- People-split. Some individuals work on-site, and others work remotely.
- Time-split. All individuals work some days on-site and other days remotely.
- Remote-first. Remote work is a default, with face-to-face work as needed.
- Office-first. In-person work is a default, with remote work as needed/allowed.
In some cases, the nature of work may require a specific approach. Much of the work, however, can be successful with any of these approaches. Inviting employee participation in decision-making may help identify a particular form of hybrid that will help minimize stress and maximize productivity.
Unlocking the advantage of flexible work
Only place and mode flexibility are somewhat limited by the type of occupation or the employee position. With open-minded leadership and goodwill, organizations can support all employees with various forms of schedule, continuity, and workload flexibility.
Flexibility in the workplace can make a tremendous difference for neurodivergent employees, but it also benefits organizations as a whole. Improved employee retention translates into substantial savings, and increased productivity contributes to the bottom line. Moreover, a more diverse and inclusive workplace culture benefits morale and supports organizational reputation.
Flexibility is a powerful tool for unlocking the power of neurodiversity inclusion. It is also crucial for the much-needed intersectional inclusion – it is particularly important to women, disabled people, and caretakers, and can be a major factor in their ability to work.
Flexibility, in many ways, is the key to inclusion, period.