New workplace expectations
Work-from-home flexibility, unlimited PTO are perks employees gravitating toward
Elevate Rapid City’s Tom Johnson has seen the future — and in his office, it looks like a four-and-a-half-day work week.
Elevate is the local chamber and the economic development group for South Dakota’s Black Hills region, and Johnson has been chief executive since 2019. That’s enough time to have ridden out both a global pandemic and a seismic change in office culture that Johnson said is reshaping American working life.
“I think it speaks to the heart of the future of the American workforce,” Johnson said. “I think pre-pandemic, we sort of had this idea of what work looked like. It meant coming into the office, it meant being here, from eight to five, it meant taking lunch hour, maybe.”
Now the sky – or more aptly, the home office – is the limit.
At Elevate, work-from-home flexibility is just one of the perks. There’s also a loosened dress code for those days spent “crunching spreadsheets” away from politicians and big-name clients. Elevate gives 21 days of PTO each year, he said, and 12 sick days.
The four-and-a-half day work week, Johnson added, just recognizes the drop in productivity nearly every American worker has as the weekend looms and the busy pace of the business week slackens.
“So we just decided to say, ‘Hey, listen, if you can get all your stuff done, in four and a half days, that's great, go ahead and leave at noon,’” Johnson said.
Johnson talks like something of a work-perk evangelist. But the core idea — more flexibility for workers — is increasingly popular, establishing an office-culture beachhead during the pandemic and growing increasingly entrenched in a tight labor market. As more businesses court fewer workers, it’s become a critical part of employee recruitment and retention.
According to MetLife’s 2022 annual study of workplace benefits, the number of workers who said that flexibility is a “must have” when looking at a new role jumped from 37% in 2020 to 57% in 2022; the number of employees who said flexibility would help retain them also made a big leap, from 30% in 2012 to 59% in 2022 (the study broadly defined “flexibility,” but said “key factors” were things like dress code, PTO use and working arrangements).
“If you look at survey results conducted by consultants and business articles today, more executives are calling for employees to return to offices,” said Ryan Smith, director of human resources at JLG Architects. “When you actually talk to employees and managers in larger cities, this isn’t what’s being practiced as most companies balance losing top performers and gaining access to new talent who expect workplace flexibility.”
The trend toward more flexible work is everywhere. Notably, in Massachusetts, a proposed pilot program would trade businesses a tax credit for participating in a study of a shortened week.
“Americans have not had a meaningful reduction in days off since the 40-day work week was invented nearly a century ago,” state Rep. Dylan Fernandes, a Democrat, told Boston.com . “There’s been huge technological improvements, and we’ve become much more efficient workers, but we’re still working the same amount of hours.”
And those employee interests are crucial when there’s fewer of them in the labor market. The fight to control inflation has sent uncomfortable ripples through the economy — especially the banking sector — but the unemployment rate remained at 3.5% in March, per the Bureau of Labor Statistics.
“Flexibility is definitely a perk and a benefit to many, so that works for a retention tool as well as a recruitment tool,” said Heather Rye, senior vice president of human resources and development with Gate City Bank. She and her colleagues said in a phone interview that Gate City also has a strong company culture as well as a tight focus on the communities they serve — which are also important parts of the picture of employees.
“It's sharing your story and showing your culture (that also matter), and I think showing our connection to our community and all of that has created that retention as well,” she said.
But not every change is an easy decision — and some aren’t always what works best for workers. One of the more contentious major changes is unlimited PTO. It’s precisely what it sounds like: a bank of PTO that workers can draw upon whenever, for whatever (with various fine print for every employer). That’s a sharp departure from the norm, in which workers get a finite bank of time off.
But what often happens, experts say, is that when workers see the boundaries for PTO go away, they become much more self-conscious about asking for time off, policing themselves more harshly than they would have with a bank they’re expected to draw upon.
In 2018, Namely — the human resources company – found that employees with unlimited paid vacation took only about 87% as much time off as employees on traditional plans. One 2022 study found that “early adopters reported that employees took less time off than previously, presumably leading to higher burnout rates.”
A headline from Fortune says it all: “Unlimited PTO sounds great on paper, but the reality could mean you never take a vacation.”
There are also limits on what works for individual offices. Matt Norby of Grand Forks’ Norby’s Work Perks said that work-from-home policies are great — unless it’s the kind of office that thrives on community.
“What we found, people went home and for a while it was great,” Norby said — though he said as time passed, the benefits of being in the office felt more obvious. “The culture of your business is a big thing and being able to see people every day and say hello, I think that face-to-face personal touch is important.”
But the chorus of workers who are seeking more flexibility and more options for their working conditions is growing. The offshoot, Johnson said, is that it’s not just businesses that are competing for workers.
“No longer do you go to the place where your employer is,” he said. “You can go to the place where you want to work and so you're seeing cities and communities now compete and offer up their amenities to attract workers.”