Almost all companies talk a good game about workplace flexibility these days. Yet many restrict alternative work arrangements to a subset of the staff. And employees often don’t feel comfortable taking advantage of the programs—in some cases fearing their job ratings and career options will suffer. According to a 2014 study from the Society for Human Resources, organizations were most likely to report that just 1%-25% of their eligible workforce used each of the flexibility options offered.
So thanks to limited programs and distrust around actually using them, “flexibility” at many companies can seem like a false promise.
Thankfully, the 50 Best Workplaces for Flexibility prove there are credible ways for companies to help employees find a sense of balance in today’s “always on” business culture. For these leading companies, flexibility isn’t a collection of policies or programs. It’s a way of doing business, one that is attuned to their particular workplace, that cares for and trusts employees, and that is tied to strategic goals. And the companies that get it right get a payoff in terms of loyalty and productivity.
For starters, flexibility isn’t fake at the list winners. At those 50 companies, 92 and 94 percent offer flextime and telecommuting, respectively; 77 percent of employees use flextime, and 49 percent take advantage of telecommuting. The commitment to flexibility goes hand in hand with commitment from employees. Among companies on the list, 95 percent of employees say their colleagues are willing to give extra to get the job done. Likewise, flexible workplaces pay a dividend in loyalty, with nine in ten employees saying they want to stay with their organizations for a long time.
How leading companies get flexibility right
Less than a decade ago, Ryan's workplace resembled many other tax-services firms, where career growth entailed 55-hour weeks, truncated weekends and ceaseless competition in the office. But high turnover and the resignation of a key manager in 2008 prompted an epiphany on the part of its CEO: What if the firm measured people in terms of results, rather than hours? As it turns out, the company has increased both retention and profitability after implementing a complete overhaul of the way it manages job performance. Today, teams at Ryan create their own schedules. That generally lets employees work whenever and wherever they want, so long as they meet clearly stated metrics for financial performance and client service. There's no hard limit on personal time off among exempt employees for illness, family emergencies or even college courses. And people wanting to continue their careers while cutting back on hours can work out a reduced scope of responsibilities – an option particularly appealing to new parents returning from 12 weeks of parental leave.
"I love the results focus," one Ryan employee says. "There is recognition that not everyone works the best between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. and sitting at the office."
For Great Place to Work partner Paul Thallner, this speaks to the level of faith that leaders must have in their teams for a truly flexible organization. After consulting for a wide range of companies, Thallner has seen first-hand how a high-trust culture improves performance. "But there's often a self-limiting belief on the part of leadership that keeps them from going all-in," Thallner says.
Chipping away at the edges of an inflexible environment often doesn't work because people feel their careers will be put at risk if they make use of alternative work arrangements. Thallner notes that improving work-life balance actually starts with equitable promotion practices, training, mentorship opportunities, and managers who communicate their expectations effectively. "And those things only work when there is for full alignment, top to bottom. If you're going to put it out there that flexibility is important, make it important at all levels."
Being flexible with "flexibility"
At Clif Bar, work-life balance might take the form of a mid-afternoon workout or lunch with a toddler. Aside from paid sabbaticals and an optional 9/80 schedule that frees up every other Friday, this food manufacturer crafts its benefits around the things its people value most. These include an on-site day care, and up to 2.5 hours of paid time each week to hit the company gym and time to volunteer during work hours.
"The emphasis on work-like balance here is not just talk, it's the real deal," says one team member. "I feel like I don't have to choose between taking care of my health and my family and doing good work here."
Among the 600-plus companies considered for the flexible employers list, the best tailored their programs to the unique needs of their staff. In addition to buy-in from management, Great Place to Work partner Marisa Stoltzfus notes that effective policies require feedback from those who'll actually be using them. At one workplace she advised, Stoltzfus recalls that a team in a call-center surprised executives after they reluctantly sought input on what flexibility meant to employees. "People came back with such creative solutions that they were able to shift management's thinking," she says.
The process enhanced the credibility of both company leaders and the policies they put in place. At the same time, employees came away feeling more connected to the culture and goals of the business. "Go back to your values and the mission of your organization," Stoltzfus often tells companies looking to improve flexibility. "Tie your programs, policies and practices back to those values, ensuring what you're doing is right for your company."
Ed Frauenheim and Kim Peters are director of research and content, and executive vice president, respectively, at Great Place to Work, the longtime research partner for Fortune’s annual list of the 100 Best Companies to Work For and other best workplaces lists, including the 50 Best Workplaces for Flexibility.