In This Article Workplace Flexibility

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Organizations
  • Types of Workplace Flexibility
  • Theoretical Backgrounds
  • Practices of Workplace Flexibility
  • Predictors of Workplace Flexibility
  • Heterogeneous Effects of Workplace Flexibility
  • Flexibility Stigma
  • The Future of Workplace Flexibility

Sociology Workplace Flexibility
by
Wen Fan
  • LAST MODIFIED: 26 February 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756384-0233

Introduction

As communication technologies develop and as organizations create policies to deal with global expansion and work−life balance, work practices and organizational lives have shifted, giving rise to a model of work where employment is not restricted to one particular place or to standard work hours. This model, workplace flexibility, has been the topic of many fields including sociology, organizational psychology, industry relations, gender studies, management, and health research. This article brings together influential studies from these fields and identifies key themes and topics of interest: the institutional and organizational forces that drive demand for workplace flexibility, types and practices of flexibility, disparities in the provision, access to, and usage of flexibility, the impact of flexibility on work-, family-, and health-related outcomes, and variation in these outcomes by workers’ characteristics and across contexts. Only articles published in English are included, but great efforts have been made to include as many international and cross-national studies as possible. As will be seen, research findings on workplace flexibility are not always consistent. Indeed, despite a growing literature that praises work flexibility for accommodating employees’ needs to balance work, leisure, and family and for reducing gender inequalities, there are also studies criticizing flexibility for fueling heightened job demands and job insecurity and for enlarging gender inequalities. This contradiction can be partially addressed by realizing that researchers do not always define “workplace flexibility” in the same way (see more discussion in Types of Workplace Flexibility). Unless noted otherwise, this article defines workplace flexibility as the ability of workers to make choices regarding when, where, and for how long they engage in work-related tasks. Flexible work arrangements, therefore, are organizational practices that permit employees to adjust their work schedule or location to better manage demands outside of work. Rigorous studies—through group-randomized trials or natural experiments—show that flexibility can promote employer and employee outcomes, but only through a systematic cultural change in how work is defined and how workers are rewarded. Given the still prevalent ideal worker norms that expect workers to be highly dedicated to work and that use “time at work” as the sole metric to assess productivity, a more profound change is needed to remove the stigma around flexibility so as to provide viable solutions to contemporary employees’ needs.

General Overviews

Underlying workplace flexibility are three trends that, in tandem, create mismatches for workers and working families as they move through their life courses. The first trend is the changing contracts between employers and employees. Kalleberg 2011 presents a comprehensive overview of trends in the labor market over the past decades in the United States. The erosion of the standard employment relationship, he argues, has led to increased job insecurity and a division of the labor market in good and bad jobs, which parallels the two types of flexibility that are occasionally undifferentiated in the literature: flexibility for the employees and flexibility for the employers, an issue that will be further discussed in Types of Workplace Flexibility. The second trend is the changing gender relations. Hochschild 1997 is among one of the first to point out the conflicting demands from work and home, with gender implications. Focusing specifically on the temporal arrangements of work and family, Jacobs and Gerson 2004 analyzes the time divide along different dimensions—gender, family type, occupation, etc.—in the United States, whereas the more recent book by Clawson and Gerstel 2014 shows that flexible work can have opposite effects on gender inequality between working-class and middle-class families. The third trend is the changing age structures and life course sequences. Moen and Roehling 2005 points out that the career mystique, that one should commit fully to the full-time, full-year, and full-life careers of paid work, is inherent in the rigid work schedules and policies. A more flexible work arrangement that takes into account individual workers’ need at different life stages is needed to better align with contemporary workers’ diverse needs. In an edited book, Christensen and Schneider 2015 provides a general overview of workplace flexibility, drawing on contributions made by scholars from different fields in the United States and abroad. The Executive Office of the President 2010 argues for the need of more workplace flexibility, focusing on its economic benefits. From a different angle, Schneider 2011 puts a human face on the work−family conflict issues faced by contemporary working families and argues that a new balance needs to be achieved between work and home for working families. She also discusses the intergenerational benefits—from parents to children—associated with flexibility.

  • Christensen, Kathleen, and Barbara Schneider, eds. 2015. Workplace flexibility: Realigning 20th-century jobs for a 21st-century workforce. Ithaca, NY: Cornell Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    This is an edited book with contributions by leading scholars from diverse fields (economics, demography, political science, law, sociology, anthropology, and management) who make the case for workplace flexibility. The articles draw on evidence from both the United States and other Western societies to underscore the need to realign the structure of work in time and place with the needs of the changing workforce.

  • Clawson, Dan, and Naomi Gerstel. 2014. Unequal time: Gender, class, and family in employment schedules. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

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    Situated in the contrast between four health-sector occupations that vary in class and gender—professional doctors and nurses, and working-class EMTs and nursing assistants—this book examines how workers experience schedule uncertainty. It argues that flexible working allows middle-class workers to “do gender” by fulfilling social normative roles at home, while low-wage workers are pressured to prioritize jobs before any unpredictable events at home, thereby possibly undermining traditional gender roles.

  • Executive Office of the President: Council of Economic Advisors. 2010. Work−life balance and the economics of workplace flexibility. Washington, DC: White House.

    E-mail Citation »

    This report presents an economic perspective on workplace flexibility policies and practices. It examines some of the changes in the US workforce that have increased the need for flexibility in the workplace, the current state of flexible work arrangements, and discusses the economic benefits of workplace flexibility arrangements.

  • Hochschild, Arlie Russell. 1997. The time bind: When work becomes home and home becomes work. New York: Metropolitan.

    E-mail Citation »

    Based on field research that examined practices of family-friendly policies in a large corporation, Hochschild brings to attention the blurring distinction between work and family, arguing that families have become more stressful whereas work has become where people regain a sense of control. Hochschild suggests that the reversed roles of work and family is one reason why many working parents do not utilize flexibility policies even when they can.

  • Jacobs, Jerry A., and Kathleen Gerson. 2004. The time divide: Work, family, and gender inequality. Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press.

    E-mail Citation »

    Jacobs and Gerson examine trends and patterns in time divides, drawing on large-scale survey data and cross-national comparisons of US workers and workplaces with their counterparts in Canada and Europe. They show how the trends in work, family, and leisure time—as well as the perceptions—vary by gender, family type, and occupation. Policy-based reforms are suggested to solve the time pressures felt by many workers and their families.

  • Kalleberg, Arne L. 2011. Good jobs, bad jobs: The rise of polarized and precarious employment systems in the United States, 1970s and 2000s. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.

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    Kalleberg gives a comprehensive overview of employment trends from the 1970s to the 2000s. Drawing on US survey data, he documents the growing polarization of good and bad jobs in terms of wages, working conditions, job security, and autonomy.

  • Moen, Phyllis, and Patricia Roehling. 2005. The career mystique: Cracks in the American dream. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.

    E-mail Citation »

    Moen and Roehling argue that women’s and men’s work, family, and personal lives have become more open-ended and flexible than ever before. But the broader societal norms, social policies, and cultural beliefs have not caught up. They highlight the career mystique in particular, the outdated belief that full-time, full-year, full-life careers of paid work and intensive commitment to employment are the norms that both men and women should aspire to.

  • Schneider, Barbara. 2011. The human face of workplace flexibility. The ANNALS of the American Academy of Political and Social Science 638.1: 103–122.

    E-mail Citation »

    This article reviews recent studies on working families and makes the case that workplace flexibility needs to become a standard of the US workplace. With the changing family structure (increasing share of dual-earner or single-parent families), inflexible work schedules not only create pressure that adversely affects workers’ productivity, health, and family life, but also cross over to harm children’s health and well-being.

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