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.
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