A Blog by Jonathan Low


Jun 25, 2014

The Thrill Is Gone: Is the Workplace Becoming Less Flexible?

They talk a good game. Really. The leaders do. About empowerment and listening generously and flattening hierarchies. 

And they will sonorously proclaim how their most valuable assets walk out the door every evening, even if they made the strategic decision that that door should be in Bangalore rather than Berlin or Boston.

But in what amounts to the third decade since technology was supposed to have set us free, the flexibility that seemed to be one of its natural by-products and benefits appears to be shrinking rather than growing.

The reasons for this have to do largely with the partnership between tech and finance. Because while tech enables the dispersion of assets and resources in order to create a stronger network wherever it may be, the fact is that those network effects may take some time to develop. And could entail some upfront costs, though those earn back a handsome return over time. But in a world of algorithmic trading and nano-second shareholding, time is not something management has. The doubts and fears of the industrial age: that face time equals real time, have failed to evaporate.

The good news is that if any organization proves it is capable of demonstrating that it has figured this out it will have a distinct advantage with both employees and investors. But that's admittedly a big if. JL

Tara Bernard reports in the New York Times:

Even though flexible arrangements often improve retention, part of the reason they are not more widespread is because they require a leap of faith that employees won’t become less productive
He calls it one of the bright spots of his week: Before Jared Dalton, 32, starts his workday as a manager at Ernst & Young, the big accounting firm, he dresses his 5-month-old daughter, Olivia, and then places her on her tummy to play. Since he works from home on Mondays and Tuesdays, he can spend an extra hour with Olivia and an extra hour working — time that would otherwise be lost commuting into Manhattan.
When the nanny arrives at 9 a.m., he sequesters himself in the guest bedroom that doubles as his office. His wife, Christina, telecommutes from their Port Washington, N.Y., home on two different days, and her mother cares for Olivia on Thursdays.
“We needed the ability to be home and attentive should something come up, rather than being an hour away and at the mercy of public transportation,” Mr. Dalton said. “Working from home ensures I am able to get in those extra hours rather than have to do them at 10 p.m. to 12 a.m.”

In today’s age of connectivity, such arrangements might seem commonplace. But while more employers say they are offering flexible work arrangements — like working from home, starting and ending the days a bit earlier or later — they are still typically offered only to certain employees, and are often informally negotiated with a sympathetic manager, workplace experts say.
“A lot of the existing research assumes companies are flexible if they report that they are. The reality is very different,” said Stephen Sweet, a sociologist at the Sloan Center on Aging and Work at Boston College and co-author of a recent study on flexible work arrangements. His study, of 545 employers, found that only 20 percent of companies offered a variety of flexible options to most of their workers.
Beyond reported increases in telecommuting and flexible work schedules, recent studies show that more employers are cutting back programs that would allow workers to reduce hours to better manage the care of, say, an ill parent. Employers have also cut back the length of leave to new fathers and adoptive parents, and reduced pay given to birth mothers on leave. And fewer employers are encouraging supervisors to assess workers’ performance by what they accomplish, instead of resorting to measures like hours worked or face time.
“They are more willing to let you shuffle what you do over the course of a day, but they are more reluctant to grant you days when you are just not there or are working part-time,” said Kenneth Matos, senior director of employment research and practice at the Families and Work Institute, a research group.
For instance, 38 percent of employers allow some of their workers to work from home on a regular basis, up from 23 percent in 2008, according to the 2014 National Study of Employers, conducted by Dr. Matos’ group and the Society for Human Resource Management, which surveyed more than 1,000 employers with more than 50 workers. About 43 percent of employers let some workers compress their workweeks, holding relatively steady from 2008.

But few workers are permitted to reduce their workloads: Only 18 percent of employers allowed some workers to share jobs in 2014, down from 29 percent in 2008, while 36 percent of employers allowed some workers to cut hours or move to part time without losing their position in 2014, which is relatively flat compared to 2008.
Even though flexible arrangements often improve retention, part of the reason they are not more widespread, workplace experts say, is because they require a leap of faith that employees won’t become less productive. Then there’s the inertia factor. Even where the arrangements may technically be on the books, managers do not always know how to manage people — or they lack the training needed — in a flexible work arrangement, experts said.
For employees, the benefits are fairly obvious: They feel less stressed and more in control of their time, studies show, and it encourages healthier behavior.

But even beyond that, true workplace flexibility could help eliminate the gender wage gap, according to a paper published last month by Claudia Goldin, an economics professor at Harvard. Women are often paid less than men in the similar jobs because women are less likely to work the longest hours or particular hours — and those who do receive disproportionate increases in pay, she said.
Flexibility can help eradicate unequal pay, she said, but jobs need to be revamped so workers could operate more independently in certain types of jobs or become better substitutes for one another. Obstetricians, pharmacists and anesthesiologists are good examples of workers who often seamlessly substitute for one another.
“When there is less focus on where and when the work gets done, people are paid in proportion to the hours they work instead of being paid disproportionately more for working long hours,” said Professor Goldin. “A firm can have a set of family-friendly policies that protect workers. But that does not mean that these workers earn the same amount as others or that they are promoted at the same rate.”
Highly skilled workers — and certain professional, technology and science occupations — are more likely to be offered the most flexible options, studies have found. Cisco Systems, for instance, lets workers to take unpaid breaks of one to two years with health benefits for the first year — to pursue a graduate degree, to care for an ill parent or just to recharge their batteries.
Jobs in manufacturing offer fewer options. For people in lower-wage jobs, flexibility often means something quite different: Employees are the ones who need to be flexible, since many of their hours and schedules may change on a whim based on their employer’s needs.
“Most organizations still treat workplace flexibility as an accommodation,” said Erin Kelly, a sociology professor at the University of Minnesota. “But there is a lot of downside when you set up flex work arrangements as a perk. You are implicitly saying, ‘Most of us will be working these traditional ways and the rewards will come to those working these traditional ways.’ And that is where you have this stigma or career penalties.”
To be truly successful, flexibility needs to be ingrained in the employer’s culture and seen as available to workers of all stripes. Mr. Dalton’s employer, Ernst & Young, and the accounting industry as a whole, are known as pioneers in workplace flexibility. Their program, which dates back to the early 1990s, was put in place to retain women who were leaving at a rate that was 10 to 15 percentage points higher than men. Women typically left just as they were starting families, which happened to coincide with when they were eligible for big promotions. Now, women leave at a rate that is just 2 percentage points higher than men, the firm said.
Two decades after the start of these programs, accounting industry executives say flexibility has become so embedded that many of their employees use these options without a formal arrangement. About 2,800 workers, or more than 5 percent of its roughly 53,800 employees in North and South America, Mexico and Israel have formal, documented flexible arrangements, like Mr. Dalton. Just 20 percent of the employees using flex time are men.
“It’s an intensive career choice, so we had to offer flexibility to make it an attractive career choice,” said Karyn Twaronite, a partner at Ernst & Young overseeing diversity and inclusiveness. “We were trying to solve a problem.”
Sometimes that is what it takes to effect change. “Some job structures are amenable to change, but operate on the assumption that current arrangements are unchangeable,” said Mr. Sweet, who is also a sociology professor at Ithaca College, adding that even shift workers at manufacturers can incorporate options like staggered shifts. “The reality is that the full potentials of flexible work remain largely untested and unverified.”


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