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There’s nothing like a tough economy to get employers to remember that their employees are people, too.

That’s the underlying theme that emerges from a new study of the nation’s employers by the Families and Work Institute and the Society for Human Resource Management.

The study documents an increasing commitment in recent years to offer more opportunities for workers to manage when and where they work. The 2012 National Study of Employers finds that since 2005 there have been significant gains in workplace flexibility among the 1,126 employers it surveyed who had staffs of at least 50 workers.

Specifically, the percentage of employers offering flex-time options that allow workers to change their starting and quitting times within a range of hours increased from 66 percent in 2005 to 77 percent today.

More employers (77 percent in 2005 versus 87 percent today) also are allowing workers to take time off without the loss of pay to attend to important family or personal needs.

Today, 63 percent of employers allow their workers to work from home on occasion, compared with just 34 percent five years ago. And, 93 percent of employers now give their workers a chance to manage their time, compared with 78 percent in 2005.

Coincidentally, a significant portion of the past seven years has found the nation’s economy to be sluggish and staggering. Perhaps when companies need to gain loyalty among their key workers — as in an economic downturn — they are more open to adding worker-friendly programs.

“It seems that employers are dealing with the lingering economic instability by trying to accomplish more with fewer people,” says Ellen Galinsky, president and co-founder of Families and Work Institute and an author of the study.

“Most of the gains allow employees to work longer hours or adjust those hours to care for their personal and family responsibilities while getting their work done. Although some may have expected employers to cut back on flexibility entirely during this economic downturn, we are seeing employers leverage flexibility as they look toward the future.”

Despite an increase in some flexibility, employers also have clamped down on allowing employees to take a career break for personal or family responsibilities (73 percent in 2005 compared with 52 percent today).

Fewer today also allow workers to switch from full-time to part-time and back again while remaining in the same position. Fifty-four percent allowed this in 2005, yet only 41 percent now do. And, fewer employers (86 percent in 2005 vs. 73 percent in 2012) offer programs that allow workers to gradually return to work after childbirth or adoption.

It is easy to see what has happened during tough economic times. Companies have had to trim their payrolls, and now that they believe they have highly productive staffs, they want to maximize that asset.

“It is clear that employers continue to struggle with fewer resources for benefits that incur a direct cost,” says Ken Matos of the Families and Work Institute. “However, they have made it a priority to grant employees access to a wider variety of benefits that fit their individual and family needs and that improve their health and well-being.”

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