Is Work Flexibility Good or Bad? It’s Complicated

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Schedule control is largely seen as a job perk, something afforded to those who’ve proven to be so indispensable that they can call the shots. But its benefit is debatable, and for every study that touts work flexibility, there’s another that flouts it.

“Previous research wasn’t showing what people assume to be true – that greater flexibility leads to overall more satisfaction,” says Scott Schieman, a sociology professor at the University of Toronto. “There’s this real experiential side where people say, ‘I don’t seem to be benefiting from schedule control.’”

So, to get to the bottom of what Schieman characterized as a “null association,” he and PhD student Marisa Young mounted a two-year study, the results of which were published recently in the Journal of Family Issues. They found that schedule control, which was used as a proxy for the larger issue of work flexibility, does have the potential to improve a person’s productivity and well-being. The problem is, this potential is rarely realized. (More on Why We Strive for Money Over Time — and Why It’s a Mistake)

The culprit is multitasking, which the researchers noticed was much more likely among those granted schedule control. Schieman explains: “Imagine a person trying to help with his kid’s homework and simultaneously responding to e-mails. He’s giving energy and effort to two things in two completely different domains. He won’t be able to do both of them at 100%.”

Worse, blurring the line between work and the home leads to stress. The multitaskers among the 1,100 Americans who were surveyed and analyzed for the study tended to report feeling a lack of time, energy and concentration at home with statements like ‘I don’t have enough time for my family because of my job’ and ‘I don’t have the energy at home to do a good job.’ (More on Working Moms’ Kids Turn Out Fine)

Arizona State University management professor Blake Ashforth refers to this as “the myth of multitasking,” noting that “what it really does is spread attention more thinly so we have a tougher time deeply attending to the details of each activity.”

So should companies continue implementing schedule control? Yes, but Schieman notes, “It’s really, really in everyone’s interest to recognize that it doesn’t pay off in the ways that people assume. Think very carefully about how people use this flexibility.”

Indeed, personality is another consideration. “People differ widely in how much they like to compartmentalize versus integrate work and home,” says Ashforth, who specializes in organizational behavior. “If possible, [employers should] allow some flexibility for individuals to determine their own preferred arrangements.” (More on Job Equality: Stressful Work Raises Women’s Risk of Heart Disease Too)

Family members, too, should be involved according to Lonnie Golden, an economics professor at Penn State University who has done similar research in work flexibility. He says: “Well-being benefits [from schedule control] are likely to be unrealized unless self-discipline and family-member cooperation are developed to cope with the inevitable, more subtle spillovers between work and life.”

Bottom line: When you’re away from the office, stay away from the office.

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