Picture this. Bob is an executive at a large company. Alice is one of Bob's direct reports, and lately, her job performance has been declining. She comes in late some days and calls in sick on others. Sometimes, she asks to work from home for health reasons. When she does show at the office, she's not the star employee Bob has known her to be. He becomes increasingly frustrated with her, until one day he sits down with her to see if there's a reason her work is suffering. She discloses she's been dealing with an illness, and she says she needs changes in her work parameters to do her job better. Bob, finally understanding Alice's plight, works with her to implement structured flexibility in her schedule—granting her DeskPlus so she can work from home when her energy is low and MicroAgility so she can attend doctor's appointments in the middle of the workday if need be. Alice is grateful, but she wishes she could have accessed these flex types a lot earlier.

Don't be too hard on Bob: He's the product of a corporate culture that can't respond to the needs of workers and the ways they feel most productive. But Bob is a hypothetical example of an all-too-real type of senior leader who hasn't grasped an important fact: Structured flexibility can stop productivity problems before they start. And just because he might have access to the flexibility he needs doesn’t necessarily mean those underneath him do. In fact, our research shows that the higher one's organizational level, the more likely they are to have access to flexibility, with Senior Management reporting significantly greater access to flexibility than entry-level employees. And if entry-level employees are fortunate enough to have some flexibility, it’s often unstructured—meaning they don't have the language to communicate their needs and managers dole out flexibility on a transactional or transitional basis. That’s why it’s important for corporate leaders to do more to understand the flexibility needs of their employees, especially their junior employees who they may be more disconnected from, and take action if those needs are not being met. (Werk can help.)

As our research shows, it's time for flexibility to become transformational. 96 percent of employees in the U.S. workforce need some form of flexibility at work, but only 42 percent can access the type of flexibility they need. Women face a worse flexibility gap: Only 34 percent of female employees can access the flexibility they need. This disparity affects employees’ abilities to provide caregiving, maintain productivity, and upkeep their own health and wellness. And when workers can't take care of themselves, absenteeism and presenteeism run rampant at work. In fact, 29 percent of respondents said their workday structure makes it challenging to manage a physical condition or chronic illness, 30 percent said it makes it challenging to be available for recurring health appointments, and 36 percent said it makes it challenging to make time for exercise and healthy living.

Many companies do provide wellness programs, but without structured flexibility, these programs are reactive and not proactive. “The problem with existing programs is that they aim to address poor health and wellness by adding incentives for being well rather than removing the barriers to being well,” we at Werk say in our research paper. “If an employee doesn't have the flexibility to attend a recurring appointment that conflicts with standard working hours, no incentive is going to enable that employee to effectively manage their condition … Flexibility allows employees to prioritize preventive healthcare, which can reduce acute health issues, decrease absenteeism, and help manage escalating healthcare costs.”

Happily, some companies are having senior leaders take cues from junior workers, even setting up “reverse mentoring” programs so executives can learn about the work styles and flexibility demands of the younger set. And productivity, loyalty, and retention are all on the rise in such organizations. When the Bobs and the Alices of the world reach an understanding—and find ways to reconcile the needs of the business with the needs of the worker—everyone wins.