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How to get flexible working rights

Tonhis words “Flexible schedules” are attractive to them. They envision a post-pandemic workplace where motivated employees organize their time in the most productive and family-friendly way, and enlightened bosses attract and retain talented employees. But flexibility is in the eye of the beholder. Its appeal can vary depending on the type of work someone does and the interests of those they serve.

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For example, if you are a blue-collar worker in a shift-based industry, flexibility sounds less like bliss and more like chaos. For low-wage workers in restaurants and call centers, predictability is far more important than flexibility. Several U.S. cities have introduced laws that, among other things, require employers to give workers a certain amount of notice when setting up shifts.

A recent study by Kristen Harknett of the University of California, San Francisco, and her co-authors on the impact of Seattle’s “fair work week” legislation found that requiring two weeks’ advance notice of schedules boosted worker-reported happiness. It also boosted performance. A study by Joan Williams of the University of California School of Law, also in San Francisco, and others concluded that introducing more stable employee schedules could boost sales and productivity at retailer The Gap.

Certainty is less important to other workers. Research by Donald Sull at MIT and his co-authors found that predictable schedules had a significant effect on the retention of blue-collar workers, but not white-collar workers. For office workers, the question is different: Whether a flexible schedule is attractive is more of a version of it.

In the minds of some bosses, flexibility means that the workweek has no clear boundaries. If their day starts at 4:30am on Peloton, so does yours (minus Peloton). If there’s an empty space in your calendar, they’ll grab it. If they had a problem on Sunday, they emailed it – then text, WhatsApp and voicemail to make sure the weekend was truly uninterrupted. It’s a wonder they don’t show up at the door. A recent paper by Maria Ibanez of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management found that offering flexible schedules in job ads increases the likelihood that people will apply. But it also found that applications fell significantly when the ad required employees to work at the manager’s discretion.

If employees balk at their boss’s offer of flexible hours, managers have a different concern: Giving employees too much control over their own hours is counterproductive. Asynchronous work involves individuals contributing to projects on their own time, and that’s all well and good. However, if teams are to function effectively, they must sometimes work as a team. Managers can have perfectly legitimate reasons to contact employees outside of business hours and expect an immediate response. Compressing the workweek into four days might give employees more time to pursue their love of kayaking, but it’s less exciting for customers.

Just as a mix of home and office is the smart answer to the need for location flexibility, a hybrid approach is the right way to think about flexible schedules. Brian Elliott studies the future of work for messaging company Slack. He designates his team a “core collaboration time,” which is when most meetings and group activities take place. The company instituted “Focus Fridays,” a day without internal meetings and when employees continued with their work. If Elliott does need to reach people outside of business hours, he does so by text message so they aren’t logged in all the time.

Such boundaries make authoritarians uneasy. Managers have to think more seriously about bothering people. Workers cannot choose their working hours at will. But a little thought can stop people from becoming their own worst enemy. For the boss, a quick answer to an unimportant question can cause more trouble. For employees, the flexibility to work outside of standard hours is a double-edged sword: Laura Giurge of the London School of Economics and Kaitlin Woolley of Cornell University found that choosing to work on weekends or bank holidays, which is relevant in their minds, related to non-work activities. For flexibility to be truly useful, it needs a strong skeleton.

Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work:
From high-speed rail to the Olympics, why do major projects go wrong? (March 16)
A Little Relief for Office Woes (March 9)
The Use and Abuse of Hype (March 2)

Plus: How the Bartleby column got its name

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