Monday, January 18, 2010

Does Flextime Work for Workers?

A few days ago, the First Lady came to my job to talk about, among other things, work-life balance. She highlighted the success of flextime programs, which give most federal employees broad discretion in setting their own hours.

Without citing any specific studies, the First Lady exclaimed that we now have the "evidence" that flextime "works." That comment received thunderous applause. But what does it really mean for a program like this to be effective?

Studies of flextime typically find positive effects in terms of individual-level productivity, but to my knowledge there is still a limited body of research examining the impact of flextime programs on overall workplace efficiency.

As a full-time student, I'm pretty happy to work on a flextime schedule. If I have to run errands or finish up some schoolwork, I can always come into work early and leave early. If I'm feeling tired one day, I can come in later without having to endure a passive-aggressive interrogation from my boss. The Department of Labor also allows its employees to work overtime and build up "credit" hours, which will likely be extremely helpful in the weeks prior to final exams. Does all of this increase my productivity? Maybe. But I tend to doubt that flextime programs actually enhance workplace efficiency.

In my experience, there are clear trade-offs. While my job doesn't require a lot of interpersonal interaction, I do work with a "team" and I do sometimes need some guidance from coworkers. Flextime can make this much more difficult. For managers, it is often challenging to administer a group of employees with dramatically different schedules. It's also hard to monitor abuses and direct joint activity. My division still uses sign-in sheets, and it's easy to consistently shave a few hours off of your workday.

More importantly, I think, flextime programs are very difficult to repeal if they are not working. Employees come to see these programs as a sort of fringe benefit, rather than an a way for the company to enhance productivity and promote loyalty.

I'm sure that these criticisms aren't new, and I know that studies of flextime have been ongoing for decades. What I'd like to see is a more comprehensive assessment of flextime programs. I haven't been able to find a meta-analysis of the various studies on flextime and worker productivity, but I'm sure that someone has tried to do a systematic review of the literature. I'd love to read it.

There are many other issues related to flextime. Does it make families stronger? Does it make workers happier? Does it improve employee health? Unfortunately, serious selection problems (and Hawthorne effects) make studies like this less than compelling.

I think it's only fair to say that the jury is still out on flextime. With programs like this, the benefits are often readily apparent, while the costs are less visible. There are still a number of concerns that have yet to be considered.

Any thoughts?


petpluto said...

My division still uses sign-in sheets, and it's easy to consistently shave a few hours off of your workday.

I think that is true in any work environment where the employee is required to keep track of their own work hours. We have an employee at my work who takes 2-3 hours for lunch, consistently, as well as leaving 5-10 minutes early almost every day. She gets away with it because almost everyone in the office likes her, she doesn't hand off her work to her employees, and we self-report our hours. As long as it hits 37.5 to the system every week, no one is going to be checking her.

A lot of the problems you mention for flex time are interesting, but I do see the payoffs as being more substantial. For instance, I personally work best in the morning, until I eat lunch. After I eat lunch, I'm done for the day. So if I had flex time, I could come in earlier, push lunch later, basically be done with my day. More productivity out of me. The problem with flex time as opposed to the normal 9-to-5 seems to be that it requires the worker to be a lot more self-aware of their own personal work style, as well as being driven enough to be able to come into work a couple of hours earlier or later depending upon the needs of the day.

Emily said...

You know, I started to think about this a few months ago when the Shriver report came out calling for more flex time for workers. I thought about my own situation, and if I'd really be a better worker with flex time.

I don't think I would. I kind of like that I'm working 8:30 to 5, with a break for lunch. That way, at 5pm my work brain shuts off, and I don't have to put it on again until 8:30 the next day. I like that my time is so black and white, so work and non-work. If I had the option of flex time, I might find myself sleeping in just because I could, working later which I wouldn't want to do, and probably thinking about work in my "off time" like on weekends. I don't want that. I want my time for work and my time for life.

I remember reading that IBM has no vacation policy- if you want off you take off, just check in with your team first. There are no day limits. As great as it seems, the article stated that people there actually took less vacation time because of this rule. They worked more, so it ended up being a plus for the company, and negatively impacting the workers. I think flex time might create a similar environment- people working more because they want to make sure they don't seem like they are working less, if that makes sense.

mikhailbakunin said...

I think flex time might create a similar environment - people working more because they want to make sure they don't seem like they are working less, if that makes sense.

I think that's an excellent point. I hadn't even considered that.

MediaMaven said...

Hmmm. Definitely lots to think about. Everyone here has great points -- I certainly know the feeling of overworking because you don't want to seem like you're slacking off. But I also know that self-reporting hours is bullshit, impossible to show how productive one really is. At my job, we had to mark down our time in 15 minute increments. Ever go to the bathroom, or have a conversation with a coworker? Timesheet ruined. It drove me nuts, since they were always comparing our time to what was actually done or against budget.

I have a number of friends who've complained about their jobs not being flexible enough, and working a strict 9-5 ish schedule makes it very hard to do certain things (like make doctor's appointments). People do view flextime as a benefit, one they would not want to give up (the NYT Magazine has written about this, in terms of families and parenting, a few times), and most people who earn this work hard to keep it, and are motivated enough/know themselves well or schedule themselves well so that all those problems are minimized as much as possible. With technology making sure that most of us are connected and in reach with work at all times anyway, flextime is easier to do, and a lot of people end up bringing work home anyway.

With flextime or job-sharing, there's usually some things built in so that everyone can catch up or check in, like weekly meetings. Sometimes chat programs are used. An imperfect system, to be sure, but one that does make employees happy. You're definitely right that it's hard to repeal (I've never come across an example), and of course, having flextime means that more and more of us are responsible for work-related activities for more hours of the day. Is that a proper tradeoff?

Flextime also won't work with many jobs, especially ones that are fast-paced and deal with immediacy or time-sensitive information.