Flexible workplaces are often been heralded as the answer to issues of work-life conflict. Researchers have found that flexible work arrangements—practices and policies allowing employees greater control over when, where and for how long they work—are associated with greater productivity and employee satisfaction. Many U.S. companies have taken note and jumped on board, showcasing impressive arrays of flexible work arrangements to demonstrate their commitment to employee well-being. So, is workplace flexibility the panacea for the work-life conflict experienced by so many Americans?
Not exactly. First of all, we should make a distinction between simply adopting flexible workplace practices and actually implementing those practices. The mere presence of flexible work options signifies a company’s ability to innovate and adapt to an evolving market and suggests an employee-centric culture. As such, the policies serve as a powerful recruiting and retention tool. However, in many cases, flexible work policies do not extend beyond this symbolic role. Researchers have found that very few employees actually take advantage of available workplace policies either due to supervisor discouragement or a fear of career penalties.
Even among companies that do have employees using flextime or telecommuting benefits, implementation is often not really complete. Marissa Mayer’s recent “come to work” order for the approximately 200 Yahoo employees who had been telecommuting highlights the previous failure of the company to fully integrate the telecommuting policy into the structure and culture of the company. Mayer’s concerns about collaboration or productivity may have been avoided by a more comprehensive approach to workplace flexibility, in which team structures, workflow practices and performance metrics were aligned with a work environment in which some employees were working remotely. Flexible work policies, in isolation from the broader workplace culture, risk failure in the long-term.
Thus far, I’ve argued that flexible workplaces are not the solution to work-life conflict due to a decoupling of policy from practice. I now want to take it one step further by suggesting that flexible workplaces, even in their conception, are incongruent with work-life balance.
Silicon Valley has, in many ways, been a model for open, flexible and less hierarchical organizational structures. Hewlett-Packard and IBM were pioneers in introducing flexible work arrangements in the 1970s. The region has also been instrumental in facilitating flexible work arrangements across the country, producing technologies such as video chat that enable flexible work options. Last year, Silicon Valley continued to push the flexible workplace model as companies such as Evernote and Zynga made headlines with their provision of unlimited vacation time to employees.
Yet, if you look into the history of the Silicon Valley (I highly recommend this long but fascinating article by Tom Wolfe as a starting point), neither work-life balance nor the enabling of a more inclusive workforce was a priority for the early firms in the region. Introduced by a rather homogeneous group of men from the Midwest, Silicon Valley’s unique organizational practices were created with the primary goal of producing results quicker and better than anyone else. With meritocracy as the ruling ideology, employees worked around the clock in pursuit of the next big innovation. Results-only workplaces were not about employee flexibility; they were about driving results, at whatever cost.
It is therefore not surprising that when Ofer Sharone, a sociologist at MIT Sloan, interviewed employees at a flexible, results-oriented organization he called “MegaTech,” his respondents described an “aggressive” and “competitive” environment, in which employees worked extremely long hours in order to meet deadlines. In this way, “flexible” workplaces refer much more to the flexibility required of employees, who must work whenever and wherever in order to achieve results, than to the flexibility of the workplaces themselves.
What is surprising is that both researchers and companies continue to look to flexible workplaces as a one-size-fits-all solution to decreasing employee burnout and slowing the dissolution of the 40-hour workweek. This is not to say that flexible workplaces cannot be a part of the solution; in fact, there are some companies, such as Ernst & Young, that seem to be making strides in this area. Rather, the larger point is that flexible workplaces represent one tool of many and will likely be more effective if part of a broader solution that includes the implementation of government supported work-life policies, as well as changes in our cultural attitudes about work and work ethic.