When flexible working makes life harder

By Edward Hyatt and Dr Erica Coslor

Flexible hours may seem like the solution for balancing work and home life, but do they always deliver?

Has this ever happened to you?

You arranged to work extra hours during the previous month so you can attend a family wedding over a long weekend. Even though you triple-checked with your supervisor - weeks in advance - and booked flights and hotel, it’s now the week before your trip and you find out there is an important client meeting that ‘just came up’ and you need to stay behind.

Or perhaps you have organised a ‘4/10’ workweek, a common flexible working arrangement where you work four, ten-hour days. But your boss keeps calling you in for Friday meetings, or to handle group projects with others on a different schedule.

And guess what, they aren’t paying you more for it.

4/10 working weeks can lead to exhaustion for some people. Picture: Getty image

These are only two examples of the common pitfalls that can come from supposedly desirable flexible working practices like flextime - work arrangements that differ from more traditional schedules like Monday to Friday, 9am-5pm. While many assume flexible work supports employee satisfaction, work-life balance and carer duties, research
shows this is not always the case.

As we found in our research on 4/10 schedules, these kinds of arrangements can actually be damaging in some cases, with workers experiencing fatigue from the longer daily hours and working extra hours.

Because it is women who tend to opt for flexible work hours, these impacts tend to affect them disproportionately.

But there are other downsides of flexible work practices including social pressure to conform to more traditional roles at the same time as working a ‘flexible’ schedule, the propagation of negative stereotypes about less committed mothers,
and assumptions about availability and ‘face time’ hampering promotion and development prospects.

This could explain why so many women don’t ultimately view flexibility as a true option, or why even those who have negotiated fewer days in the office often still feel compelled to be responsive to email or come in for meetings.

Mandating flexibility

We surveyed employees in a US city that were moved onto a Monday to Thursday schedule, with the hope of saving money on utilities by closing buildings on Fridays. We received over 700 responses, and found that many of the supposed benefits of flexibility are lost when the schedule is mandated.

While some workers were satisfied with the new schedule, a significant proportion (35 per cent) had low satisfaction levels, much of which was linked to perceptions of how the program was implemented and its mandatory nature.

This can be seen as what some authors have labelled ‘bad flexibility’. When employees lack real choices in their working conditions, the benefits of flexible programs are likely to be limited. Several things seem to make a difference; for example, even if a program is voluntary, employees may not feel
comfortable taking advantage of it for their own benefit because of workplace culture.

Workplace culture can be a deterrent to women working flexibly. Picture: Getty Images

All of this helps explain why prior research found mixed benefits for flexible schedules like 4/10 workweeks. A lot of studies call non-traditional schedules ‘flexible’, but they may have been imposed by the employer, or employees may not feel that they represent a real, flexible alternative anyway.

The element of employee choice seems to really make the difference.

An example of a truly flexible work schedule might be one that allows employees to determine their work time around a core set of designated business hours. Everyone would be expected to be available for work during those critical hours, but then would be free to be more flexible around the remaining
hours of the day. This would presumably support the goals of the business while allowing a healthy sense of work-life balance amongst the workforce.

By applying an approach like this to the whole workforce, many of the flexibility downsides women experience can be avoided.

If everyone is working in a truly flexible manner, the stigma that can hamper careers or make women feel like they ‘have’ to be available no longer applies. And expectations around meeting times can be limited by only scheduling them during core hours.

Long story short, when it comes to flexibility, it is important to consider whether it offers real benefits. In other words, does this flexibility actually support real choice in the workplace? Does it really meet the needs of all the employees, or just some of them? Have potential issues like fatigue,
schedule coordination, and social support been taken into account?

We, like many others, think that workplace flexibility can show great benefits for employees (and in turn, their companies), but it’s certainly not a given if it’s not true flexibility.