Flexibility at work: Who’s bending and what’s broken?

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 x-Cure_Allcommitment 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.

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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.

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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.   Silent-Journey-Destressing-with-Workplace-Flexibility

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.

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7 thoughts on “Flexibility at work: Who’s bending and what’s broken?

  1. I feel very conflicted about this subject. I can see the pros and cons and in general I believe that government policies have a greater potential to benefit workers but I can’t think of any specific legislation that will help. What policies would you like to see?

  2. For starters, I’d like to see mandatory paid family leave (and tangentially related, policies that support universal daycare) to help ease the burden for those with children. However, that doesn’t really address the issue or work-life conflict for those without children, which I also think can have negative consequences on mental and physical health. I’d have to think further about my views on policies that could better define and regulate “overtime” work that make sense in today’s economy.

  3. Yeah, it seems that after a certain salary point there is a sense that you owe them–so there is a pressure to be always available. In fact, someone very close to me was told that at his pay grade he is expected to check his email every weekend and never fully disappear on vacations. But being so well-compensated it is almost more difficult to stand up for yourself.

  4. Very cogent analysis of the current state of ‘flexible workplaces.’ Your last paragraph references E&Y and broadly suggests that other tools, policies, and cultural changes could help — sounds like some potentially promising areas for continued research and exploration. It’s may also be interesting to explore how the European Union has (or hasn’t quite) merged the economies and policies of countries with very different cultural attitudes towards work.

    • Great idea. I had thought about comparisons to other countries (mainly in Europe), but I hadn’t thought of looking at the EU as a whole. It’s particularly interesting because it seems to still be unfolding now. Thanks!

  5. My question about work-life conflict or policies aimed at achieving “work-life balance” is what does being unbalanced feel like in the first place? I know there’s that famous study about how middle class women complain more about their unbalanced work lives than working class women, even when they work less hours (I can’t find the reference! Grad student fail.), but are there other patterns of “unbalanced” feelings throughout the population?

    And I really liked the way you historicize these “flexible” policies to demonstrate their roots in a highly competitive sector and not in the “touch-feely” family friendly politics that they’re now associated with. But, to push your argument even further…the way we conceptualize the divide between public and private, and the valorization of the private sphere as sacred and necessarily separate from the public is also a huge historical transformation important to sorting out the complex implications of these policies.

    • Oh, I really love your point about the separation between public and private because as I mentioned in a previous post, this division has historically had some negative consequences for gender equality. It’s interesting because flexible workplaces, in theory, tend to integrate the two spheres, which would be a good thing (and perhaps partially explains the appeal). Yet, the issue arises when this blurring of the lines actually leads one sphere to fully encompass the other, as seems to occur in firms like “MegaTech.”

      In terms of what work-life conflict actually looks/feels like, it makes the most sense to me to refer to the consequences of this conflict. Work-life conflict has been associated with a host of things such as poor physical and mental health, lowered work satisfaction, decreased marital quality, and decreased time spent with children among others. There are also some studies about work-life conflict affecting work quality, which in some cases (for example, among medical professionals) can be more of a concern than in others.

      To your point, work-life conflict is experienced differently across the class spectrum. I’m not sure of the piece you mentioned above, but I do know of a debate among researchers about the fact that in some cases, upper-and middle- class workers are complaining about too many hours, while working-class workers can’t get enough hours. I don’t think there has been a definitive resolution to that debate, but I do know that work-life conflict is often experienced among the working-class in terms of having multiple jobs or nonstandard work schedules (the night shift). While the consequences above are likely to affect everyone, it seems likely that they are more acute for working-class individuals who may have less job stability and have fewer resources to cover the cost of healthcare and/or daycare.

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