Flexible working is often touted not only as a way to improve employee morale and motivation, but also a benefit that helps stretched families maintain their sanity and their budgets despite economic and time pressures. Framed this way, it’s hard for companies to come straight out and declare they’re not interested in supporting employees with flex work policies, but just because most companies now pay lip service to flexible work, does that mean the practice is really benefiting most workers?
That’s what Stephen Sweet, a professor of sociology at Ithaca College and a visiting scholar at Boston College’s Sloan Center on Aging & Work, aimed to find out with an analysis of surveys of U.S. companies in all sectors that the Center conducted in 2009. The results are less than uniformly encouraging for fans of flexible ways of working.
Sweet found that highly educated workers in sectors like law, medicine and higher education are clearly seeing the benefits of employers’ professed interest in flexibility. Workers in these relatively elite professions use the policies to cut back on their hours when they face personal crises large or small and face few negative repercussions from doing so. But the positive effects of these policies have yet to trickle down to lower-skilled workers who, due to their tighter budgets, are presumably most in need of help balancing their home and professional commitments. Lower-skilled workers, Sweet argues, face different challenges that highly educated ones, and this makes them unable to take advantage of helpful flexible work programs. Sweet writes:
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…..
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.
While one could argue that it’s better for a cleaner or a cook to be able to rearrange their hours around a sick kid or a car in the shop than to be stuck in an inflexible schedule, Sweet isn’t very positive about the current state of flexible working for this hard-pressed segment of the workforce, nor is he hugely optimistic about the future. “The bright side of flexibility is unlikely to be the natural evolution of workplace design,” he says, noting that the declining power of unions prevents them from pushing to make the benefits of flexible working available to a wider spectrum of workers.
“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,” he concludes. “Until we are able to do this, lives will continue to be reconfigured to match the workplace, rather than workplaces configured to match lives.”
Do you see any way to bring the benefits of flexible work to lower-skilled workers?
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