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Examining the tensions in workplace flexibility and exploring options for new directions

United States academic research, October 2014

Over the past twenty years much research has been conducted on workplace flexibility. From this body of knowledge organisations can now see tensions in the way flexibility is discussed, implemented and experienced. How these tensions are resolved is the next frontier to mainstream flexibility. By Juliet Bourke - Consulting, Partner.

After nearly twenty years of research on workplace flexibility it is now clear that there are tensions in the way flexibility is discussed, implemented and experienced.  Whilst the fundamental aim is usually espoused as helping employees balance their work and home commitments, this outcome is not guaranteed.  What is the way forward to ensure that work/life integration is more of a reality than an aspiration?  What are the implications of research which shows that knowledge workers, especially at senior levels, have high levels of autonomy and flexibility, and yet work excessive hours and feel more “out of control”?

By reviewing more than 300 academic articles and books on workplace flexibility Dr Putnam (University of California), Dr K. Myers (University of California) and Dr Gailliard (Rutgers University) identified and explored three primary tensions: variable vs fixed arrangements, supportive vs unsupportive work climates and equitable vs non-equitable implementation of polices.  From there, the authors put forward strategies to advance how human resources practitioners think about their approaches to flexibility – and ultimately reconcile -  so as to move the flexibility agenda forward.

Aim

The aim of this study was to identify tensions and contradictions associated with the implementation of workplace flexibility, and therefore to stimulate the introduction of mitigation strategies and advance the flexibility agenda.

Method

The writers sourced more than 450 academic articles and book chapters on workplace flexibility, 70% of which identified “tensions and contradictions” in the way flexibility was discussed, implemented and experienced.  The terms ‘tensions’ and ‘contradiction’ were key aspects of this research. They are defined as follows:

Tensions refer to a clash at a conceptual level. For example, the use of the term ‘work-life balance’ is filled with tension because it suggests that work and life are opposites and there is a zero sum game. Ideally, employees would see work as another enriching aspect of their lives, as opposed to being separate from “life” and energy depleting.

Contradictions are the resulting actions and interactions which stem from a tension. They are the unintentional clashes that can occur in the workplace when flexibility initiatives are designed and implemented. For example, managers might promote family-friendly policies whereas employees, either implicitly or explicitly, discourage co-workers from using them for fear of increasing their own workloads.

After categorising the recurring themes across the flexibility literature, the writers suggested strategies to deal with the tensions. They clustered the issues thematically in order to analyse the topic holistically.

Findings

The authors observed the following four recurring tensions that result from flexibility initiatives.

  1. Variable vs fixed arrangements
    The first finding of the research was around the ‘variable versus fixed’ tension. The authors defined this as the impractical ways that flexibility polices are often implemented, for example while a “flexibility” policy may exist, due to various administrative barriers employees may see it as a rigid and difficult procedure to take on.  Another example is when a call-centre employee is allowed to work flexibly, only to have management change work schedules at short notice.  This tension may cause a contradiction at a more organisational level, where a flexibility policy exists but due to fixed deadlines or static workflows, it is unworkable or may disadvantage employees who decide to access a flexibility option
  2. Supportive vs unsupportive work climates
    On this second tension, the authors found that the take-up of flexibility initiatives is influenced by the surrounding organisational climate.  For example, whilst flexibility may be espoused as a viable individual option to balance work/family, a workplace may undermine that perception by rewarding only those who prioritise work over family.  Additional elements of tension can be found in social dynamics, for example, a manager might proudly communicate the existence of a flexibility policy (sending a signal of encouragement) however co-workers may express concern about the impact of one  individual’s flexibility on team performance (e.g. “letting the team down”, “picking up the slack”, “more hours for me”)
  3. Equitable vs inequitable implementation of policies
    The third tension explored by the authors is that of ‘equitable versus inequitable implementation’. The research found that a core principle behind flexibility initiatives is that they are available to any employee to balance their work/life commitments.  The tension is that workers and managers are likely to perceive that access to flexibility is legitimate for some employees (eg Mothers with children) and not for others (e.g. playing sport) or some categories of care (e.g. for a sick child) and not others (e.g. to see a school play)

    The authors suggest that due to the perception that the policies target specific demographics, certain inequalities can result. The report contends that these might originate from the leadership, where the decision falls in the hands of a manager who will subjectively deem whether one person’s situation is more suitable for a flexible work practice than another person’s. Or it might be internalised, where an employee who would benefit from a flexible arrangement deems themselves unsuitable, and does not attempt to apply for it
  4. The autonomy paradox: autonomy vs organisational control
    Dubbed the “autonomy paradox”, the authors identified research on knowledge workers which revealed a fundamental tension between autonomy and control.  On the one hand, knowledge workers often have high levels of autonomy about how, when and where they work, on the other hand social norms about “the ideal worker” shape how knowledge workers spend their time, leading to high levels of discretionary effort and a feeling of being “controlled” by work.  For example, workers may elect to take time off work, but simultaneously be “on call”.  Additionally, workers may manage their own work schedule but find themselves doing more multi-tasking, or work from home and find that more work time blurs into home time.

 

Implications

Naming the tensions enabled the researchers to think through whether they were binary and could be resolved by selecting one end of the spectrum over the other, or whether the tensions could be reframed to generate more creative solutions.  At present, the tensions serve to undermine the potential associated with workplace flexibility, namely work/life integration.  The authors suggested the following ways to reconcile and redress the tensions:

Variable vs fixed arrangements: Adaptability or temporal customisation: “Tailor work-life initiatives to fit individual’s lives at different points in time, reframe workplace flexibility as an accomplishment” and customise schedules and work design by focussing on results not time.  

Supportive vs unsupportive work climates: Sustainable employment relationships: “Emphasise collaboration among stakeholders to meet performance and productivity needs, allow all workers to utilise flexible arrangements with clear measures of accountability”.

Equitable vs inequitable implementation of a policy: Treat workplace flexibility as a right: “Make flexibility part of an employee’s psychological contract with the organisation; make it a right rather than a benefit.  Change the expectations about how, when and where work gets done.  Decouple flexibility from performance and promotion opportunities”.

The autonomy paradox: autonomy vs organisational control: Equifinality: “Realise multiple approaches can lead to the same organisational outcomes.  Focus on flow – times of full engagement (immersion) mixed with times of non-engagement (time off).  Use third spaces to foster collaboration among multiple groups for managing work and life demands.  Implement adaptable workplace cultures.  Emphasise work-family enrichment”.

Whilst the strategies the authors propose are clearly very high level and require more detailed thinking, their identification of underlying tensions in the way flexibility is discussed, implemented and experienced is of real value to moving forward the flexibility agenda.

To read the full article, see Putman, L. L., Myers, K. K. and Gailliard, B. M. (2014), Examining the tensions in workplace flexibility and exploring options for new directions. Human Relations, 67: 413–440.

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