Workforce Flexibility Then vs. Now: How the Words Have Changed and So Have We

Bethany Johnson
September 1, 2017

Presence equals productivity.

Give workers an inch and they'll take a mile.

Working parents are more needy.

Believe it or not, these statements were the standard management mindset not too long ago. Granted, each sentiment has a small element of truth: When someone is nearby, you can see what they're up to, sure. Yes, you'll encounter the occasional worker who does take extra advantage of corporate perks. Team members with kids indeed have a lot to think about. It's true.  

However, the days of jumping to negative conclusions are over. Astute leaders know that productivity is subjective, and some people do their best work on a park bench, while others achieve greatness in the focus of a dark room. Further, for every bad apple that takes advantage of a company-sponsored benefit, there are scores of workers who aim higher out of gratitude for the perk. Many experts agree that top-down flexibility and support contributes to lower worker turnover, something every team can appreciate.

As enterprise-level brands have worked more and more creatively to attract and retain the brightest talent out there, flexibility has taken center stage. But flexible work is not a new concept. In fact, throughout the decades, flexibility has saved the day in more ways than you'd expect. Let's take a look.

“The first personnel programs were not what you'd call generous, let alone flexible, by today's standards.”

Early 1900s: In the Beginning

Not long ago there was no concept of human resources, let alone an organizational department for it. In fact, fewer than a hundred years ago, the threat of termination (peppered with rough oral on-the-job aggression from above) was the main motivator of workers. It was the corporate culture of that era...but it sparked a change.

1910s: Unions and War and Strikes, Oh My!

In 1917, as the U.S. reluctantly entered World War I, fear dominated more than the floor workers' conversations. It supersaturated all levels of management, making that rough employee treatment a symptom, not a cause, of trouble. The true issue was in the psyche of business owners and their stakeholders. The war put new political pressure on brands to reign in waste, acknowledge trade unions and attenuate turnover. If they failed to change, businesses risked industry-wide government takeover.

'20s & '30s: Enter Labor Management

The first personnel programs were not what you'd call generous, let alone flexible, by today's standards. In fact, they seemed begrudging. Born of fear and rooted in the desire for more control, companies offered workers "perks" that look like today's traditional employment: job security, workplace safety regulations, workers' compensation and fair dispute resolution.

Industrial relations scholar John R. Commons dubbed this move the "employee goodwill" method and, in 1919, published his seventh book (of 14 total) on the topic. Early adopters of the new paradigm are names that reverberate today, including brands like Standard Oil, General Electric and Bethlehem Steel. And yet, flexibility in these days was strictly organizational. There was still no thought to a worker's need for leeway in either time or place.

1940s: Two Steps Back

Unfortunately, when threats from union leaders diminished, so did progress. Brands like General Motors and U.S. Steel saw that the investment in people would be long term at best and, at worst, would produce no returns whatsoever. Sadly, hundreds of enterprises reverted to a top-down philosophy that choked both managerial and worker-level flexibility as even a hopeful possibility.

'50s & '60s: Autonomy At Last

In a 1964 issue of Harvard Business Review, Harold Wolfe praised Sears Roebuck as one of the first brands to offer managers real flexibility in day-to-day operations, the result of a new philosophy known as decentralization. At the time, this sort of autonomy was radical.

"We have deliberately tried to treat you as free, independent merchants and men," proclaimed then-President of the company, General Robert E. Wood. "We have tried to free you from a horde of bureaucrats, functionaries, inspectors, who might nag and harass you.” Workforce flexibility appeared as creative license (and only at the manager level), it would seem a turning point was on the horizon.

With the rise of dual-income households came burdens of juggling work and family life for the first time in American history, and employers had to adapt. Not only did workers see their domestic partners jumping into the workforce, so did executives. For the first time, masses of women began securing employment, which left kids and aging parents needing flexible dads to show up at unconventional times and in unorthodox ways. Executives couldn't ignore team members' requests, since they themselves were simultaneously feeling the tug of life outside the office. Flexibility was more than an attractive offering. It was suddenly a necessity.

'70s & '80s: Restructuring

It wasn't until the '80s that experts began considering flexibility as more than an outcropping of the women's movement. In the 1989 book, Transformation of Work, author Stephen Wood points to sociologist Sylvia Walby, Ph.D., who predicted that workforce flexibility would soon start serving all people, not just businesses, and not just one working gender.

"The influx of women is not a temporary expedient of employers seeking 'reserves' of labor to use in a crisis," she observed. "It is, rather, a long-term restructuring of the gender composition of the workforce. It can occur because of long-term changes in gender relations both within and outside employment." Whose flexibility was it then in the '80s? Did Walby's forecast come true in the '90s? Let's turn the page to find out.

1990s: Hawaiian Shirt Day

No one at the time knew exactly how economically rosy the '90s really were. Sure, there was the occasionally dark headline but, in retrospect, both employer and employee enjoyed a new, hopeful perspective. "Labor management" morphed into "talent acquisition" and the "personnel department" became "human resources." Companies exercised creativity in the effort to attract and retain the best. Yes, the ingenuity resulted in a few zany ideas, like in-office ping-pong tables, team building excursions and Hawaiian Shirt Day.

As workers fed back, the first widespread adoption of formal flexible work programs were set in place, offering compressed work weeks, shift and break rearrangements, transition periods of reduced hours, part-time options, job sharing, seasonal work and remote work. Among the alternatives was flex time, the ability to come and go within a certain window established by collaborative boss-worker communications. Meanwhile, technological advances like the development of the world wide web connected remote friends and colleagues for the first time. The personal computer was also undergoing a transformation, becoming more and more compact until complete portability was achieved.

2000s: The Great Recession, Dot Gov & H1N1

With these trends and technological innovations, the thought of working remotely had crossed the minds of most workers. Some brave souls had even mentioned the prospect to bosses or co-workers. And then? Events like avian influenza and record oil prices in the U.S. gave many employers the final nudge they needed to offer flexible work options for the first time.

As seen before, flexibility took another two steps backward after the 2008 recession. Employees felt grateful to have a job at all, while face time at the office was one (perceived) way to secure a future position. Then, in 2010, human resources teams everywhere gathered 'round the lobby TV and with bated breath watched President Obama launch the White House Forum on Workplace Flexibility, sparking lively water cooler conversations across the nation.

Around that time, the Families and Work Institute published an eye-opening report showing that while many employers offered flexible work options, they still lacked a culture of flexibility.  More specifically, between 27–49 percent of workers said they had access to flex time or telework, and yet felt like they'd jeopardize their career by taking advantage of the offer. Finally, here was a concrete, organized, data-driven initiative (complete with its own surprisingly robust website) aimed straight at agencies and enterprises for the purpose of strengthening the country's economy by giving workers more and better flexibility. Whoa.

2010 to Now: Lifestyle Tech & Celebrity CEOs

While technological advances appeared early in the 21st century, it wasn't until the last few years they truly equipped workers with tools that made traditional collaboration almost...well, unnatural. Often neighboring officemates conducted entire conversations via instant messaging apps instead of simply making eye contact and speaking over their cubicle dividers.

At the same time, an influx of high-profile business leaders published book after exciting book of how they built thriving empires remotely and what they'd say to aspiring leaders hoping to do the same. Names like Richard Branson of Virgin Group and Scott Berkun of WordPress urged leaders to encourage flexibility in when, where and especially how work gets done.

2017: Flexibility Today

A few years back, CNN reported flexibility as the most desirable job feature for workers, second only to pay and benefits. In fact, talented professionals wanted it so intensely that lack of flexibility was one of the main reasons cited for quitting. Thankfully though, companies have been responding, with 40 percent more employers offering flexible work space choices than just 5 years ago. Perhaps most exciting of all is the new willingness of brands to contract with outside experts on a contingent basis to complete projects.

“Today, brands again are in the position of benefiting most from resourceful workers that create their own flexibility by contracting with businesses instead of negotiating flexibility into the old employee handbook.”

Recently, researchers at the Brandon Hall Group released a remarkable report based on their most up to date Contingent Workforce Survey. In it, 90 percent of responding companies say they currently contract with non-employee workers, and most plan to increase budgets to hire and keep the best outside experts. For the second time in history, businesses are now the biggest beneficiaries of the brave new flexible workforce. This time around, however, workers are casting half the votes.

The Flex of Future-ability

Kids and aging parents aren't the only human factors of future flexibility. Good arguments are made today that say pets, hobbies and self-care are also reason enough to expect leeway. Fluid hours, remote and contract work options won't be perks in the future — they'll be standard. As tech tools equip both companies and contractors alike, team members will realize more benefits of remote collaboration and contingent work until the next generation arrives with another disruptive trend in hand.

Industrial history shows us that brands once demanded flexibility instead of offering it. As culture has changed, businesses have responded to employees' wishes for greater wiggle room in both time and space to get work done. Today, brands again are in the position of benefiting most from resourceful workers that create their own flexibility by contracting with businesses instead of negotiating flexibility into the old employee handbook. As an executive, it's your turn. How will you shape the future of flexibility, by offering it as a perk or by exercising flexibility yourself as an agile, proactive brand?

Learn more about the quality of talent that is choosing to work independently. Download the whitepaper The Agile Workforce.

Featured in: Workforce Flexibility

About the Author

Bethany Johnson

Bethany Johnson is a content marketing writer and speaker. Her unique style and long-form original content creation has helped brands like Tom's of Maine, MasterCard, ADP, Fidelity and Philips reach and engage their audiences. For more, visit

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