Behind the Hype: The Myth of Flexible Work Hours

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In an always-on wired world, much has been made of the flexible work schedule. It let’s young people get their job done from the beach, or at midnight; allows middle-aged employees to take a leave to, say, care for an ailing parent; and gives older workers the ability to scale back hours and remain on the job. Or does it?

Looking at data from recent surveys, Stephen Sweet, an organizational studies expert at the Sloan Center on Aging & Work at Boston College, concluded that corporations have hyped these benefits to absurd levels. Companies often claim to offer the benefit even though it is available to only a small portion of their workforce.

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Sweet looked at three flexible work options and found:

  • Pause work: 58% of companies claim to offer employees a leave of absence but only 16% make it available to more than half their workers.
  • Reduce work: 78% of companies claim to offer employees a part-time option but, again, only 16% make it available to at least half their workers.
  • Mobile work: Nearly all companies (94%) claim to allow employees the flexibility of working off site but only 40% extend the benefit to at least half of their personnel.

These sobering numbers do not factor in workplace pressures and career management issues, which have the effect of further eroding the availability of flexible work benefits. Writes Sweet:

“There’s a difference between an option that’s on the books and one that employees can choose without adverse consequences. All too many flexible work arrangements impose significant career costs.”

Flexible schedules are most often available in industries that employ highly skilled professionals such as law, medicine, technology and academia. But they are not generally available to low-skilled workers who may need them most because they have fewer options when family events demand their time. Sweet concludes:

“The bright side of flexibility is unlikely to be the natural evolution of workplace design. Unions could push for flexibility, but it’s at best a secondary concern for them…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. Until we are able to do this, lives will continue to be reconfigured to match the workplace, rather than workplaces configured to match lives.”

With all we’ve heard about flexible schedules the past decade or so, this is troubling information. The nature of work has changed dramatically. Much of it can be done anywhere anytime. Careers have changed dramatically. Young people have fewer opportunities and often place work-life balance ahead of career. Older workers are under saved and need to stay at work longer but have less energy.

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Companies have made a show of responding to these changes. They need to take it more seriously.