Does Workplace Inflexibility Cost Libraries?

Workplace flexibility is hardly a new concept. The idea of the flexible work environment has been around for decades in some form or another (Sladek and Hollander, 2009). Studies show that workers who have say in where and when they work are happier, healthier, more committed to their jobs and their employers. They also produce a higher quality of work (Walter, 2010). The benefits to flexibility in the workplace are significant and apply to both employer and employee (Flexible Work Options, 2010). Conversely, the costs of inflexibility can be high and include lower morale, decreased productivity and significant lack of employee engagement. In the last year there has been a fair amount of discussion regarding the recession and its impact on the flexible workplace. Some have suggested that the current economic climate has resulted in a retrenchment of popularity regarding the flexible work arrangements. A recent study from the Families and Work Institute found that 81 percent of employers who offer flexible work environments are maintaining them and 13 percent are actually increasing the level of flexibility (Families and Work Institute). Only 6 percent have actually pulled back on their offer of flexibility to employers.

The inference is clear: workplace flexibility is here to stay as employers realize its value in an increasingly cost-challenged work environment. They have effectively rejected the oft-used canard that workplace flexibility is too costly or not in the best interest of an organization. In fact, given what we now know about the benefits of a flexible work environment, such objections ring hollow. More and more employers, in an intense time of cost-cutting and work intensification due to employee lay-offs and reductions, are choosing to embrace flexibility in the workplace as a means of doing more with fewer people (Kelliher and Anderson, 2010). The reason: meeting employee demands for flexibility results in more engagement and productivity from workers at a time when managers are asking smaller staffs to undertake more work. It follows then, that limits on workplace flexibility could indeed cost an organization, especially where furloughs, cutbacks, layoffs or hiring freezes decrease work hours without decreasing the amount of work. Simply put, workers who are denied flexibility are apt to display reduced productivity, reduced willingness to work longer hours, and reduced interest in taking on additional projects. These factors indicate that inflexible organizations are less productive organizations.

Librarians and library managers who resist or limit flexible work environments face challenges on several fronts. When dealing with salaried or exempt employees it makes little sense to limit where and when certain work gets done. For libraries, which are increasingly adopting and adapting technologies that encourage access beyond the actual physical library, there is a clear benefit to embracing flexible work environments for patrons as well. Employees who adopt flexibility as part of their approach to library work are often productive as well as more effective in patron interactions. Consider the reality: more and more library work, related to both technical services and reference, is being delivered to tech-savvy patrons that have heightened expectations of accessibility. These patrons expect to access services outside of the times that the library is actually open or that assistance is traditionally offered. Preventing or decreasing worker flexibility sends a negative message to committed librarians who embrace this patron segment and its expectations, and are willing to deliver results to them in accordance with those expectations. For example, lack of flexibility limits the ability, incentive or willingness on the part of flex-centric libraries to engage in users who request answers via text messages, maintain Facebook pages, post Twitter updates or simply respond to email reference inquiries, especially during off-hours when the physical library could be closed. For these librarians it’s a balancing act and a trade-off: The availability 24/7 is balanced by the flexibility of being able to deliver these services while doing other things or by freeing them from the drudgery of a commute or down time in the office doing nothing. Workplace inflexibility renders this balance more difficult or impossibile, and it also negates evolving patron expectations. The result could indeed be increasing irrelevance for the library as a growing portion of users become non-users due to the library’s inability to meet their expectations.For the reason above, libraries as service-driven institutions should place themselves on the forefront of advancing flexible work environments.

Additionally, recent economic decline has radically influenced work environments in general. Libraries are no exception to this upheaval, and are increasingly asked to do more with less. how many library managers embrace the idea of flexibility for workers as a means of maximizing the impact of their most precious resource? Cut backs, layoffs and furloughs have demanded that libraries reduce operating hours and services as well as materials. By choosing to embrace flexibility in terms of hours and location, managers can indeed mitigate the impact of these cuts by producing more engaged, happier employees who are willing to work different hours delivering services through alternate means that depend little upon the old-fashioned constraints of a traditional library work environment. For example, expanding offerings to include socialnetworking sites for library help, or simply email and text messaging, could allow patrons to get help despite building closures or shortened hours.

Embracing flexible work environments may be challenging for traditionally-minded library managers. In their mind, “flex-time” and “flex-place” represent loss of control as well as a reduction in accountability that could result in rampant abuse. This argument, however, neglects current realities regarding technology, work environments and productivity. More specifically, the technologies that allow employees to productively engage in their jobs while away from the office also represent the opposite. In other words, while technologies like the internet, instant messaging and social networking allow for remote work, they also permit remote ‘play.’ The old model of being in the right place for the right time has little to do with worker engagement since those hours can easily be subverted by the use of websites, social networking and email that have virtually nothing to do with work. As a result, managerial focus on employees’ hours and place of work represents nothing more than that. It does little to ensure productivity, engagement, approachableness, follow-up and accountability. Perhaps managers who feel uncomfortable with the idea of the flexible workplace should consider what it is they find valuable in terms of outcomes, results and patron satisfaction. Instead of focusing on time or place of work, perhaps they could focus on evaluations and accountability tools that concern themselves with specific outcomes and results. The reality is that new models of service delivery are emerging that dramatically change the perception of the library, especially regarding the need to visit it as a place during certain hours. The nature of 24/7 access to digital information is at the root of this change in perception. The past vision of librarianship dwells on “just in case”; the new vision of librarianship is focused on “just in time.” For example, a reference librarian seated at a desk “just in case” someone comes by with a question is increasingly being replaced by an email or chat option, for example, where a user can ask a research question “just in time.” Enhancing the latter type of service may indeed require adapting, as a manager, to a model of management that embraces, rather than resists, workplace flexibility.

It’s easy to suggest that flexible library work environments may be utilized to produce the best results for patrons and employees for the reasons above, because accountability is shifted from time and place to effectiveness. For such effectiveness, however, there must be stringent accountability in terms of electronic availability and patron satisfaction regarding the electronic encounter. With that said, and to show a balanced view, there are certain functions like circulation, re-shelving, meetings and instructional workshops that depend upon both presence and time in order to be effective. Other activities such as answering digital reference, responding to emails, drafting reports and writing articles can be undertaken anywhere. Managers that embrace flexibility in order to produce the best results for their organization, as well as the patrons using the library, should be savvy enough to differentiate between the two.

Considering the expectation and benefits of flex-work, it can be argued that failing to consider this aspect of managing human resources ultimately betrays a lack of experience and finesse as a manager and leader. Focusing simply on hours worked and place of work as a means of evaluation and accountability is a default position from a bygone era that does nothing to improve organizational effectiveness or patron experience. In fact it can do just the opposite. And in times of economic scarcity it can be an exercise in squandering the most valuable resource, the human one.

Michael A. Germano is Library Faculty at California State University, Los Angeles.

Works Cited

  • Families and Work Institute—News Room. 2010. February 23.
  • Flexible Work Options Benefit Diverse Range of Employees. 2010. Managing Benefits Plans, 10.1: 8-9.
  • Kelliher, Clare, and Deirdre Anderson. 2010. “Doing More with Less? Flexible Working Practices and the Intensification of Work.” Human Relations 63.1 (2010): 83-106.
  • Sladek, C., and E. Hollander. 2009. “Where is Everyone? The Rise of Workplace Flexibility.” Benefits Quarterly 25.2: 17-23.
  • Walter, Laura. 2010. “More Flexibility at Work Boosts Employee Health.” EHS Today Online Exclusive 19 Feb.