Workplace flexibility can come at a cost to the employee

Two recent studies suggest flexitime programmes may be costly to the people who enrol in them, especially women.

Two recent studies suggest flexitime programmes may be costly to the people who enrol in them, especially women.

Offering flexible workplace schedules seems like a no-brainer. Work has become more flexible – tied less to specific times and places – and gender roles have changed. Letting employees shift their hours to accommodate hectic life schedules makes sense.

Surveys show that flexitime ranks high on the list of benefits employees want and that women value it even more than men do.

But two recent studies suggest flexitime programmes may be costly to the people who enrol in them, especially women. And the penalty begins before any scheduling adjustments are made.

In a recent study by Furman University’s Christin Munsch, the reactions that men and women receive when requesting flexible work requests were quite different – and quite favourable to men.

Munsch studied more than 600 working-age individuals, all from the United States. Participants were shown a transcript of what they believed was a real conversation between an employee and a human resource representative.

Unknown to the participants, Munsch had modified the transcript in a few ways. In some versions, the employee asked for a flexible schedule, working three days a week in the office and two from home while also coming in late or leaving early on office days. In others, no flexible work request was made.

More important, Munsch modified the transcript to change the gender of the employee and the reason for the request (some versions were a request because of childcare, others were specifically non-family reasons).

Dependability and dedication

All participants were asked to evaluate the employee based on likability, dependability and dedication to the job, as well as how likely they would be to accommodate the employee’s request.

In comparing the different transcripts and the reactions they elicited, Munsch found that when male employees requested flexible schedules to accommodate childcare requests, almost 70 per cent of participants were either likely or very likely to grant the request. When female employees made the same request, that number dropped to about 57 per cent. In addition, participants were much more likely to evaluate the men as likable and committed than the women.

In terms of flexible scheduling, Munsch believes her results should give employers caution.

“In an arrangement where both partners contribute equally at home and in terms of paid labour – men, but not women, would reap workplace advantages,” Munsch said. “A move toward gender equality at home would perpetuate gender inequality in the workplace.”

This study might paint a grim picture for the future of work-life balance and gender equality. But it should not be seen as a justification for eliminating flexible work arrangements. If these programmes aren’t producing the results they’re designed for, the logical step is to look at what adjustments to the design need to be made to eliminate the perceptions and biases that come along with the programmes. – (Copyright Harvard Business Review)

David Burkus is the author of Under New Management. He is an associate professor of management at Oral Roberts University


Previously published in The Irish Times.


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