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No flextime in your office? Don’t blame HR, fault your boss

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If your employer offers flexible work schedules—the option to telecommute, for instance, or to come in to the office at hours other than the usual—how did you hear about the policy? Odds are it wasn’t from your boss. Only about one in four (27%) employees report to someone who’s willing to bring up flextime, says a new survey from the Society for Human Resources (SHRM). Everybody else hears about it either in job interviews at the company, or from peers after they start.

Coincidence? Not really. The SHRM study uncovers a big disconnect inside many companies. While human resources executives want to make flexible work arrangements available to everybody as a way to attract and retain talent—especially, but not only, “knowledge workers” who happen to be Millennials—bosses closer to the front lines often drag their feet. Almost three-quarters (71%) of the HR people polled say that managers don’t support, let alone encourage, flexible schedules.

“HR sees flextime as a crucial part of its strategy for managing talent, and employees clamor for it,” notes Lisa Horn, director of a SHRM program called the Workplace Flexibility Initiative. “Where it falls down is at the middle-management level. Flexibility is more complicated and difficult than managing employees who are all together in one place at the same time.” In particular, she adds, “some managers are afraid of how it will affect their own work-life balance if it means they end up having to do extra work.”

To try to overcome those misgivings, SHRM has teamed up with the Families & Work Institute to launch When Work Works, partly to make training available on topics like measuring the productivity of remote employees. (The SHRM survey says 80% of HR departments now have policies that “encourage managers to evaluate employees based on accomplishments rather than just ‘face time.’”) But Horn says it’s slow going: “We still have a lot of work to do.”

In the meantime, When Work Works has put together a step-by-step toolkit for anyone who wants to request flextime, including advice on what to do if the boss says no. One suggestion: Ask for help from another manager who does support flexibility, and who is either a peer or a higher-up of your recalcitrant boss. Invite him or her to a meeting with you and the boss who’s against it, to discuss the details of how flextime could benefit both of you. In a nod to the tricky politics this may entail, the guide cautions, “This should be presented as a joint problem-solving meeting, not an attempt to go over your supervisor’s head.”

If that doesn’t work—and if finding a different boss is, for whatever reason, not an option—the SHRM survey offers one encouraging statistic: About half (48%) of HR people think flexible schedules, including telecommuting, will be much more widespread within five years. Managers who are resisting flextime now will need to get with the program, says Evren Esen, SHRM’s survey chief, “or else their organizations may become less competitive.” And who ever wants to take the blame for that?