Do people really want flexible work?

There is something of a perception that flexible working is something that employees crave, and there have been numerous studies regarding the benefits of it for employer and employee alike.

When push comes to shove however, just how much do we crave it?  That was the question posed by a recent study from Princeton and Harvard Universities.  They wanted to explore whether people would accept a small pay cut in return for flexible working, and the answer appears to be not.

How important is pay?

Interestingly however, whilst few people appeared willing to sacrifice their pay for more flexible hours, they were happy to see pay drop by up to 8% if it meant they could work from home.

“Our findings show that flexible scheduling is not valued by many workers in the sense that they prefer a little extra income rather than a more flexible workplace. However, we find that for a relatively small number of workers, flexible schedules are really important,” the authors say.

The study seems to suggest that we’re generally quite happy with the 9-5, Monday to Friday nature of work, and certainly wouldn’t pay to change that.  What we dislike are ‘out of hours’ requirements, such as being asked to work on weekends, and the stressful commute to work.

The study saw participants offered a number of jobs that fell into two broad categories: a tradition 9-5 position onsite, and one with a random schedule chosen from these options:

  • Flexible schedule that the worker could create themselves (so long as it equaled 40 hours).
  • A flexible schedule whereby the hours could be anything up to 40 per week.
  • A 9-5 rota, albeit one that could be done from home
  • A flexible schedule that could also be conducted from home
  • A schedule that was determined by the boss, including the possibility for out of hours work

In terms of wages, these would be randomly allocated to the different possible work schedules, with applicants able to apply for whatever role best suited their monetary and other needs.

The sweet spot

When the results were analyzed, it seemed as though there was a clear sweetspot of around 40 hours per week, with people most willing to ‘pay’ to work from home.  There was precious little incentive to set our own schedules, or indeed our own hours.  The message appears to be that as long as our hours are predictable, we don’t mind working them.

“While much of the discussion about work-life balance has focused on providing workers with more flexibility and more predictability in scheduling, we find that this isn’t what most workers want. Most workers simply want to work during traditional working hours,” the authors say.

Whilst the findings may not be that surprising, they do once again highlight the dislike people have for the kind of ‘zero hour’ contracts that are so often in the news.

Hopefully it will provide some food for thought when you’re thinking about your own flexible work procedures.

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One thought on “Do people really want flexible work?

  1. I can't read the whole article, but from the summary it seems their methodology doesn't account for cultural differences (their data is limited to the US).

    Furthermore, I can't deduce that they did any profiling for the people willing to take the pay cut for increased schedule flexibility. I bet, based on my experience, that the more skilled, more in demand, and consequently more burdened with work at their current workplaces and also better paid are the ones willing to trade less pay for a more flexible schedule. Those people earn well above average anyway, so they wouldn't feel like taking a cut, but their work is more demanding and stressful than that of less skilled and consequently less well paid workers, which makes anything likely to reduce stress more valuable to them.

    Plus, the more creative, more active people who are usually the more skilled ones also have typically more things they like to do and care about than the more average people. Therefore, a flexible schedule also provides value to them by making it possible to more efficiently organize their time and do more things than someone willing to work 9 to 5, further increasing the attractiveness of a flexible schedule vs more money.

    This explains why women, in particular women with children, are more willing to pay for a flexible schedule – they inherently have more things to do than men with similar interests and skills, since (not discussing whether it's fair or good or bad) there's a social expectation that the mother takes more care of the small child than the father.

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