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The freedom to attend personal needs during the workday is the kind of flexibility that Canadians most want, new research suggests.

According to a recent LifeWorks survey of 3,000 current or recently employed Canadians, 29 per cent rank personal-needs flexibility as their most desired. This is followed by flexible work hours, which was preferred by 26 per cent, and work location flexibility, which was most appealing to 24 per cent.

Unlike flexible work hours, which gives staff the freedom to adjust when they start and end each workday, the ability to step away from work provides the freedom to respond to unexpected or unscheduled personal needs during the workday, and make up for the lost time later.

“Life doesn’t stop between nine and five,” said Paula Allen, global leader and senior vice president of research and total well-being for LifeWorks, adding that many senior leaders already enjoy this form of flexibility.

Ms. Allen adds that the finding came as somewhat of a surprise, given the heightened emphasis on location-based flexibility policies, such as remote or hybrid work arrangements. “More people are focused on solving the issue of location, and not the issue of stepping away when needed, and that’s the thinking we want to change,” she said.

Ms. Allen explains that the conversation around flexibility is often approached from a policy perspective, but she believes employers are missing the point. She believes that flexibility is really about the relationship and power dynamic between employees and their employers, and what workers are really demanding is more trust.

“They’re really talking about the control they have over their work and their time,” she said. “Flexibility removes a possible strain on that relationship, because people don’t like to feel controlled.”

As work moved into the home during the pandemic, many Canadian workers became accustomed to balancing work-related responsibilities such as child care and caregiving. Now that they’ve enjoyed the flexibility to help their children with remote learning or check in on a loved one during the workday, few are ready to relinquish that freedom – and employers that take it away now could face some serious repercussions.

According to a recent survey conducted by FlexJobs and Mental Health America, those without flexible work options are almost twice as likely to report poor or very poor mental health. Those who enjoy more flexibility in their jobs, however, say they have healthier diets, better sleep schedules, exercise more and enjoy a greater overall quality of life.

“Having control of your own schedule and being able to prioritize personal commitments, such as child care or caregiving responsibilities, can lead to better work-life balance, increased productivity and decreased burnout,” said Brie Wieler Reyonds, FlexJobs and Remote.co’s career services manager. “All employers should look at what they can realistically do to offer flexible work options in a way that both supports the organization’s goals and its workers long-term.”

Failing to provide that flexibility could create staffing issues in an already competitive hiring landscape. According to a recent study conducted by EY Canada, 54 per cent of employees say they are likely to quit if they aren’t offered the flexibility they want. Furthermore, millennials are twice as likely to walk off the job as baby boomers for issues related to workplace flexibility.

“There’s tension between employee preference and employer preference, and what’s stuck in the middle is the definition of flexibility,” said Darryl Wright, EY Canada’s talent and future of work leader. “One thing that is abundantly clear is that nine out of 10 employees that we surveyed want flexibility in not just where they work, but when they work.”

Mr. Wright explains that the debate is taking place at a particularly opportune time for workers, who, thanks to a strong employment market, feel more empowered to leave organizations that don’t provide the type of flexibility they’re looking for.

“Employers that don’t look at the data around flexibility are going to be hardest hit around the talent attrition issue,” he said. “If you ignore it, you’ll see talent voting with their feet.”

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