Just because the personnel manuals of many — maybe most — companies in the United States profess to offer flexible work arrangements of some sort doesn’t mean that these arrangements really are widely available and improving people’s lives.
For one thing, there’s a difference between an option that’s on the books and one that employees can choose without adverse consequences. All too many flexible work arrangements impose significant career costs. Years ago, when my twins were babies, my employer would have let me scale back my hours. I didn’t do it, because my career would have died as a result. My experience marks the difference between an option that’s available and one that’s usable, with no catch-22s.
Even if we take the policies on companies’ books at face value and assume they’re at once available and usable, a lenient research standard has exaggerated the access to flexibility. Most studies of personnel practices give a company credit for a flexible work option if at least one person on staff can take advantage of it. By this standard, a company can appear to be a shining example of workplace flexibility even though the vast majority of its employees aren’t eligible for the options it offers.
According to surveys of U.S. companies in all sectors that Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging & Work conducted in 2009, most flexible work options are of the “move work” variety — allowing employees to choose where or when they will do their jobs. These options rarely reduce workloads and only limited segments of the labor force have the resources needed to pause work — such as to take a temporary break from their jobs (to care for a family member, for example). That’s a big problem for many workers at stressful junctures in their personal lives, and leads to overwork, which studies show diminishes productivity. The types of flexibility that workers need most — cutting back on hours or going on leave — are least likely to be within their reach.
The availability and types of flexible work arrangements vary by type of job and type of business. When they’re in place, do they truly help employees manage work and family affairs? Do they make employees’ lives more manageable and, in so doing, benefit employers, too?
In sectors that employ highly skilled workers (such as law, medicine, and academe), the bright side of flexible work options is visible. Employers in these sectors use these options to attract and engage people whose specialized knowledge puts them in a competitive position in the labor market. These workers can demand some autonomy in order to balance the requirements of their work and family lives.
Workers laboring in sectors that rely on low-skilled jobs (such as accommodation and food services) commonly experience the dark side of flexibility. In these sectors, flexibility is not an option to be desired. Instead it’s a source of unpredictability, with work shifts and the number of hours on the job subject to change from week to week. For these people, the problem is not finding ways to reduce workloads but rather, finding ways to scrape enough work together to make a living on low wages.
The bright side of flexibility is unlikely to be the natural evolution of workplace design. Unions could push for flexibility, but it’s at best a secondary concern for them, and in any case their power to enact change has been greatly diminished. While some employers (particularly those in the high tech sectors) will clearly benefit from making flexible work arrangements more widely available and usable, others may find it hard to establish a business case.
The question today concerns how to expand the bright side of flexible work to wider segments of the workforce – especially the options to reduce work. Until we are able to do this, lives will continue to be reconfigured to match the workplace, rather than workplaces configured to match lives.
Stephen Sweet is an associate professor of sociology at Ithaca College and a visiting scholar at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work. He is co-author of Changing Contours of Work: Jobs and Opportunities in the New Economy, published this year by Sage Publications (Thousand Oaks, CA).