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Students attend The Foot in the Door Career Fair at the University of Illinois in Springfield, Ill. last month. The US economy added 248,000 jobs in September, beating expectations and pushing the unemployment rate down to 5.9 percent.

Is 'flexible' work just overwork?

The idea that more-flexible work arrangements are best for workers and companies is starting to see some pushback, amid concerns that work is bending further and further into an employee’s personal time. 

A few weeks ago, The Wall Street Journal profiled a company in the midst of a radical staffing experiment. Employees at United Shore Financial Services LLC, a Troy, Mich.-based mortgage lender, all work rigidly structured, 40-hour-per-week schedules, with no daily breaks aside from an hour-long lunch. In return, they leave work at 6 p.m. on the dot with the expectation that they will fully unplug outside the office – no work-related phone calls or e-mails allowed.

This sounds reasonable enough on paper, but it lies in stark contrast to the experience of the vast majority of the modern American workforce. For the white-collar careerists among us, an unbroken connection to our offices by phone and e-mail is the expectation, and the 40-hour workweek is a charming flight of fancy. On average, salaried workers in the United States clock 47 hours per week on the job, and nearly 4 in 10 work over 50, according to a 2014 Gallup poll. Lower-paid, hourly workers have the opposite problem. Sophisticated software allows large retail and service companies to predict their staffing needs by the minute, making it difficult for workers to know how many hours they can expect to work week to week – and, by extension, how much money will be coming in.

Both scenarios evolved out of an overarching need for flexibility in how and when work gets done. But that can come at the cost of a clear separation of work and the outside world, and it’s starting to face some pushback.

In addition to handful of firms like United Shore tightening up their hours, other flexibility-driven management schemes have fallen out of favor in recent high-profile cases. In 2013, Best Buy’s new CEO ended a highly lauded results-driven workplace policy that had allowed employees to set their own hours and attend meetings only when they felt like it – so long as they met certain concrete performance goals, like increasing sales. That same year, Yahoo! CEO Marisa Meyer eliminated telecommuting at that company, saying that collaboration and innovation suffered because of it.

Regulators, too, are taking a closer look at practices that engender inconsistent work hours. Amid scrutiny from officials in several states, in recent months a spate of major retailers, including Gap, have ended on-call scheduling, a staffing practice requiring hourly workers to call in for shifts they may or may not be paid for, sometimes with as little as 30 minutes advance notice. In September, the Labor Department issued guidelines further clarifying which workers could be considered independent contractors amid worries that many companies, including ride-hailing service Uber and key players in the burgeoning "gig" economy, were using the classification to avoid paying for the benefits or insurance required for full-fledged employees.

These are just the latest attempts to tackle a question that has plagued managers and HR reps for decades: How can a businesses be responsive enough to stay competitive and meet employees’ needs while still giving them their personal space?

“The appeal of instituting a 40-hour rule is it sends a clear signal that employers don’t consider long hours a badge of honor,” says Erin Kelly, a sociologist and professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management. “But I have a problem with saying it has to be standard,” she says, because it doesn’t address the underlying reasons people end up overworked.

The 9-to-5 myth

Flexibility isn’t just a prerogative for working parents; it’s vital for companies as well. If a father needs to duck out on a Wednesday to chaperone a school field trip, the option to make up those hours on a Saturday is invaluable. At the same time, having staff on hand to reach overseas clients on their time, or being able to call in extra employees to deal with a rush of holiday shoppers, is crucial for businesses in an increasingly competitive, interconnected corporate landscape.

“There is no such thing as a 9-to-5 workday when business is conducted globally,” says Dan Schawbel, a consultant on career and workplace trends and the author of “Promote Yourself: The New Rules for Career Success.” “Technology has enabled professionals to conduct business from wherever they are, and companies are constantly looking to do more with less and maximize their current talent base.”

Kelly Miskowski, a public sector contracting professional in Washington, works remotely every Tuesday and takes every other Friday off (she works extra hours on certain days to make up the time). She finds the slightly alternative schedule a perfect fit – she sings in a neighborhood choir on Tuesday evenings, and telecommuting means she doesn’t have to battle the notorious D.C. traffic to make it to rehearsal on time.

“It makes other things easier, too,” says Ms. Miskowski, who worked a fixed schedule at her previous job. “If I have a doctor’s appointment, I can schedule it for Friday instead of blocking out three hours of my work day for it.” She adds that arrangements like hers are typical in Washington, where workers coming in from the suburbs swell the city’s population 79 percent every weekday, and commute times are among the highest in the country. 

Even businesses in cities without Beltway-level congestion have reaped the benefits of flexible and remote work, Mr. Schawbel says. “Companies are saving a lot of money on real estate as office size shrinks. They aren’t doing this just for the good of the workers, they’re doing it because there is a financial incentive.”

But without clearly defined boundaries, that can lead to an unrelenting corporate culture of one-upsmanship that penalizes workers who have to tap out for personal reasons. In a joint study that Schawbel’s company,, conducted earlier this year with the recruitment firm CareerArc, nearly two-thirds of North American respondents said their supervisors expected to be able to reach them outside the office. Additionally, 20 percent, or 1 in 5, reported spending 20 hours or more of their personal time per week on work-related tasks. Miskowski admits that she’s more likely to keep working on a project past quitting time if she’s at home.

Other policies meant to boost freedom can have unintended consequences, critics say. In recent years, some companies have started to offer unlimited vacation to their employees, for example. The trend is still too small for the effects to be definite, but some, including staffers at Tribune Publishing, have rejected the plan outright over concerns that it could pressure workers into taking no time off at all.

Seeking solutions

Professor Kelly and other social researchers are trying approaches to the problem that treat the actual number of hours as a secondary concern. Last year, Kelly and her collaborators conducted a field test in the IT department at an unnamed Fortune 500 company. The aim was to reduce the conflict between staffers’ work and family time. In addition to giving workers more control over their hours and where they worked, the program offered training for supervisors to better communicate their awareness of employees’ family needs.

“We found that managers often wanted to be supportive, but didn’t behave in ways that their employees viewed as supportive,” she says. 

The experiment found that employees given more support from managers and control over their hours felt that they had far more time to spend with their families, and their work hours did not increase. The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and published in “American Sociological Review.” 

“The worry is that if people work when and where they choose, they’ll end up working all the time,” Kelly says. “If you add flexibility and don’t address the hours expectations or change the rewards, you might get into that situation.” The key, she says, is emphasizing objective results over time put in – in the IT company’s case, if quality software was being developed, for example.

The most effective approach may ultimately depend on the company and the nature of the work itself. United Shore may be ripe for a fixed workweek because processing mortgage loan paperwork doesn’t really hinge on the schedules of other companies or countries.

For her part, Miskowski describes her job as a “careful balance between paperwork and face-to-face interaction,” in which it’s good to have days during the week set aside to go over documents and send e-mails and others for meeting with clients and colleagues.

In Schawbel’s view, though, businesses that can maintain some level of flexibility will be better set up for the long run. “Within the next five years you’re going to see a lot of Millennial employees having children. They will make up the majority of the workforce, and they are going to need more flexible arrangements,” he says.  

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