Hourly Workers Need Flexibility the Most, But Are Often the Least Likely to Get It

May 7, 2018 Ellen Ernst Kossek

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The implicit promise of work-life flexibility is that it can address workers’ needs to reconcile work demands with personal and family needs, all while benefiting firms in the form of a greater ability to attract and retain employees and in potential performance gains. The idea of flexibility-driven mutual gains is especially appealing now, when gender equity is at the media forefront and where nonwork demands and job stress are on the rise. Elder care demands, for example, are rising with the global aging of populations. Men today are reporting as much work-family conflict as women, and single employees report work-family conflict as well.

And yet, although work-life flexibility has been of interest to practitioners, scholars, and individuals for decades, it remains a poorly understood concept with mixed effects.

In our recent study, published in the Academy of Management Annals, we analyzed trends across 186 studies, conducted between 2010 and 2015, of work-life flexibility and its impacts. In doing so, we were especially attentive to whether work-life flexibility programs and practices would have consistent benefits for all types of workers, as well as whether they were highly paid and occupied a managerial or professional position, or were semi-skilled or lower in the distribution of income and skill in the labor market. We also noted whether workers at the lower, middle, or higher ends of the firm were present in the same research.

For the most part, they weren’t. Despite the many studies on the topic, it is rare for scholars to consider occupational differences across workers in the need for, and experience of, work-life flexibility. It is also rare for a study to compare different types of work-life flexibility outcomes for these workers at the lower, middle, or higher ends of the firm.

We were even surprised to find little consistency in the definition of work-life flexibility. In total, there are over 50 theories used in the management and organizations literature to describe the consequences of work-life flexibility on employees and organizations. In order to integrate and make sense of these definitions, we developed our own, which went through a blind review: employment scheduling practices that are designed to give employees greater control over when, where, how much, or how continuously work is done. Many practices in organizations fit within this definition, including flex time, telecommuting, reduced-load work, and parental leaves.

What exactly do we know about how kinds of work-life flexibility benefit employees in different jobs the most? First, not every employee faces the same work-life challenges, has access to the same types of flexibility, or experiences outcomes from them in the same way. For example, retail, food, and other workers in hourly jobs that pay at or close to the minimum wage often struggle to get sufficient predictable (and sometimes enough) work hours to care for their families. They would benefit from being able to control their work hours through flex time and having greater control over schedules and time off, as well as the ramping up of hours when it fits their lives. Yet these are the workers who rarely have access to control over when they work.

In addition, access to other work-life flexibility practices that affect the ability to take time off and the continuity of work, like paid sick and parental leaves, is critical to these hourly workers. It is also largely unavailable to them. In contrast, work-life flexibility practices linked to work volume (part-time and reduced-load work arrangements) are often involuntarily used and tend to have negative implications for workers in lower-income hourly jobs. In other words, these workers can’t take a sick day, but they’re also not getting enough hours to support themselves or their families.

The view is a bit rosier for middle- and higher-income individuals. Access to these same practices can have great benefits, at least in terms of retention, if not longer term promotion and pay. At the same time, managerial, professional, and other workers at the upper stratus of the labor market — those with the most access to flexibility arrangements that offer control — face problems of work intensification, role overload, and boundary management challenges. For example, some workers are asked to complete a full-time workload during part-time hours. People can have too much work to do in too little time or too many internal and external client demands. And with 24/7 connectivity, many of us are attached to our phones, checking work communications during personal time off the job (and, conversely, social media and other personal messages when working).

We believe that differences in access and experiences of flexibility have created a new form of inequality in workplaces. Work-life inequality — defined as unequal opportunities to access work-life supports (the flexibility to control work schedules, workloads, time off, or location of work) — is very real and is ripe for improvement by business leaders and scholars in the form of policy development and further research. Some have already started. For example, Northern Trust recently conducted a risk analysis and allowed many employees to become mobile workers if they agreed to work in the office at least one day a week and to work at home one day a week. This saved thousands on real estate in expensive urban areas, and employees relished the shorter commutes and the ability to attend to personal needs when not working.

The Gap recently implemented a predictable and consistent work scheduling intervention and found that sales went up 7%. A major grocery store and food distribution company worked with one of us (Ellen) on a policy change involving a cell phone boundary control, where customer-facing employees were able to ask their manager if they could step off the floor to take an important call or text, such as one from their child or doctor, even if it wasn’t their break. This same company also implemented a “respecting time off policy” that trained workers and managers to not communicate with coworkers regarding minor nonemergency work matters during a day off. Managers and employees reported higher well-being in these stores.

The evidence is growing that forward-thinking companies must critically examine their work systems and implement processes to better match employees’ work-life needs to their ability to control their working conditions. Our research suggests that it may not simply be the work-life flexibility practices themselves that can harm or benefit productivity; instead, it’s how employers manage equality in access, use, and implementation. Employers play a critical role in redesigning workplaces to provide all employees with greater control over how their work is reconciled with their personal lives. If done thoughtfully and fairly, it can lead to positive payoffs for organizations, people, and society.

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