Boundaries needed in workplace flexibility and variability

September 8, 201410:30 am2066 views

In the modern workforce, controlling your time is a valuable form of currency. For many workers, it’s as equal an aspiration as being wealthy. For proof ,“control your time” has almost 200,000,000 more mentions on Google than “make more money”. Ironically, the very technology enabling workplace flexibility through online connectivity and near-instantaneous communication are also causing people to lose control over their time.

Workers at the top and bottom of the economic spectrum feel the loss of control, with technology often the culprit. Whether a buzzing smartphone or location-tracking software, when predicting schedules becomes harder, the less real flexibility that many people have.

Researchers, company executives, and advocates have fought for decades to increase workplace flexibility. Flexible work used to be an empowering instrument that allowed staff freedom to work on their terms. But the promotion of flexibility feels like a red herring, masking the huge erosion of agency over a workers own time, whether at work or not.

What if it’s not about flexibility, but helping managers and workers establish functional boundaries, so that everyone maintains a reasonable level of control over their lives? What if the main problem isn’t just one of flexibility, but variability in schedules?

Work Flexibility & Variability

Today, workplace flexibility is the goal for many firms and its implementation is increasing across the board. Increased “flexibility” is insufficient to cope with the increasing work variability of schedules. Here are two powerful examples, from opposite ends of the income spectrum.

Retail workers often work hours that may seem flexible, but in truth are just highly variable. Software that helps retailers optimise staffing against levels of store traffic can create chaos for staff with family commitments. From a corporate perspective, scheduling software takes a time-consuming task away from store supervisors and does it much more efficiently.

See: Workplace Flexibility? Excellent Business Choice

However, Starbucks in the US has found this to be a issue, with many key staff (i.e. baristas) having difficulty negotiating the variable work hours and shifts with their personal lives. Using analytics to schedule workers on an “as-needed basis” saves labour costs and also ensures adequate staffing during peak periods.But do the benefits compensate for the havoc wreaked on workers’ lives?

To ameliorate this issue, which negatively impacted their workers, Starbucks promised to revise scheduling practices, so that work hours must be posted at least one week in advance. This is one clear example of flexibility requiring greater administrative effort and planning, compared to conventional fixed schedules.

BCG’s Problem

While the problem is vastly more challenging for those at the bottom of the economic ladder, those who work in well-paid, white collar jobs also feel the effects of variability. Employees at Boston Consulting Group, one of the most elite workplaces worldwide, suffered the stress created by lack of control over their work hours.

Deborah Lovich, a BCG Partner who engaged Harvard Business School Professor Leslie Perlow, writes: “The big problem wasn’t so much the long hours and incessant travel. Our consultants expected that when they joined BCG. Rather, Perlow discovered, it was the complete lack of predictability or control they had over their daily lives.”

Consultants, quite literally upon waking up, had no idea how many hours they would be working on that specific day. When Perlow asked them in the morning how long they expected to work that day, the average figure was underestimated by up to 30 percent. As a result, Lovich worked with Perlow to offer BCG employees predictable time off.

Simple interventions, like giving team members more control over how they defined their schedule, raised productivity and the intent to stay with the company. Whether low-paid hourly workers or highly-salaried professionals, a shift is happening; a case for greater flexibility has morphed into a need to control increasing work schedule variability.

In the end, it’s control over their day that empowers people and grants job satisfaction. Workers must have control over their time, in order to function and create stable families and lead normal lives with a stable routine. Leslie Perlow’s work with consultant teams found that the lack of control over an individual workers schedule drove dissatisfaction and turnover.

While demanding workplaces with greater flexibility, managers need to be mindful and think holistically about what follows such implementations. Leaders in work redesign not only have to make work more flexible, but make work hours more predictable.

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