Workplace flexibility and scheduling…will it work?

Not too long ago, I found this article written by Joan Williams for the Huffington Post. I typically enjoy reading Williams’ columns, as she does a nice job of integrating legal issues (she is a distinguished professor law at the University of California) into discussions on gender, work/life conflict, and organizational support. In this article, Williams argues that there are four steps to workplace flexibility and smart scheduling. They are:

1. Create a dependeable schedule.
2. Set up a formal system for handling schedule changes.
3. Address the issue of overtime
4. Offer hourly workers short periods of time off work.

These suggestions come from a discussion Williams had with the president of a labor union who represents grocery and drug store employees in California. The main point here is that employees need scheduling stability in order to seek work/life balance.

While I do understand her point here and I do agree that organizational policy changes are a much-needed improvement to work/life balance issues, my concerns lie with some of the underlying assumptions of such a change. Let me start off by saying that I absolutely agree with some of these potential policy changes. For instance, having a stable schedule and a formal system for handling scheduling changes is good for most organizations. I also think that organizations should consider the impact of overtime (and the implicit requirement for workers to work overtime). I also agree that offering hourly workers short periods off work is important (as long as it is paid time off and not compulsory). Ahh, but herein lies the problem.

In one of my favorite research articles (and one that I have used as the basis of a forthcoming report), Erika Kirby and Kathleen Krone (2002) argued in their paper, The Policy Exists, but you Can’t Really Use It (published in the Journal of Applied Communication Research) that the implicit (sometimes explicit) peer support rules can supersede potential desire to make use of organizational work/life policies. Through interviews with many workers, they discovered that individual employees felt restricted in using work/life policies because their coworkers felt that they should not use those policies. Something that my research study will explore is the notion that, even when individual employees are burnt-out, they still will reject using work/life policies, when their is a culture of resentment in their workplace.

Therefore, we can look back at the list of organizational changes that Williams gives us in this article and see that the potential for a strong peer network may actually reverse any potential positive benefits of these policies. Take for instance item #3, addressing the issue of overtime. In her article, Williams argues about ways to implement such a policy:

“Separate the workforce into four groups, and assign each group one week a month for which they need to be available for overtime. Another is to give employees vouchers that allow them either to bid for overtime, or to avoid overtime.”

On face, both of these systems seem like a potentially-fair and practical system. However, when you add the variable of co-worker relationships to the mix, we can see that the potential positive outcome can quickly deteriorate. For instance, in those workplaces where there is a culture of strong political figures, certain individuals may use pressure techniques on those less-powerful employees to get their desired overtime days. Certainly, I could imagine a situation where individuals approach coworkers to “cash in” their vouchers on certain days while pressuring others to not bid those days.

The same critique could be lobbied against her fourth suggestion, to allow for short time-off periods. She argues in the article “The final step is to offer hourly workers short periods of time off work. A key issue is allowing employees to take time off in two- or four-hour segments. This is vital for low-wage workers who cannot afford to attend a school conference or doctor’s appointment if they need to take an entire vacation day in order to do so.”

Again, on face, this seems like a very useful policy implementation. However, Kirby and Krone (2002) argued that (and my forthcoming article will support) that those individuals who need time off the most are typically not the ones to take it, when the culture of the organization is necessarily prohibitive. For instance, some organizational cultures support those people who have children in their need to take certain time off work, while other cultures expressly reject that notion. In fact, in some organizational cultures, outspoken individuals usually spread feelings of resentment and guilt around rather quickly. In some ways, these resentful messages can be far more powerful than any organizational policy.

So, what are we supposed to do? Should organizations just forget any methods of policy implementation? No. Of course not. Instead, the key, in my opinion, is to develop systems where policies are created and then a climate and culture where those policies are supported. When individuals decide to take time off or use one of the policies developed, the institutional narrative is a positive one, perhaps even a focus on how valuable and important it can be to use policies when needed. Importantly, a negative culture will typically create impede the psychological desire (in spite of the physical necessity) to take time off. Therefore, organizations should really be concerned with the ways in which their employees support each other at work.

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