How to get flexible working right

Flexibility is in the eye of the beholder. Its appeal can vary depending on the type of job someone is in, and on whose interests are being served (Photo: Shutterstock)
Flexibility is in the eye of the beholder. Its appeal can vary depending on the type of job someone is in, and on whose interests are being served (Photo: Shutterstock)


  • It is about schedules as well as locations

The words “flexible schedule" have an attractive ring to them. They conjure up a post-pandemic workplace full of motivated workers, organising their time in the most productive and family-friendly way, and of enlightened bosses, attracting and retaining talented employees. But flexibility is in the eye of the beholder. Its appeal can vary depending on the type of job someone is in, and on whose interests are being served.

If you are a blue-collar worker in an industry that operates in shifts, for example, flexibility sounds less like nirvana and more like chaos. For low-wage employees in restaurants and call centres, predictability is much more important than flexibility. Various American cities have introduced laws that, among other things, require employers to give workers a set amount of notice when setting their shift rotas.

Recent research by Kristen Harknett of the University of California, San Francisco, and her co-authors into the effect of “fair workweek" legislation in Seattle found that the requirement for two weeks’ notice of schedules improved workers’ reported sense of well-being. It can also improve performance. A study conducted by Joan Williams of the University of California College of the Law, also in San Francisco, and others concluded that introducing more stable employee schedules increased sales and productivity at The Gap, a retailer.

Certainty matters less for other workers. Research conducted by Donald Sull at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and his co-authors found that predictable schedules had a marked effect on retention for blue-collar employees but did not affect white-collar ones. For desk-bound workers, the question is different: less whether flexible scheduling is appealing, more whose version of it prevails.

In the minds of some bosses, flexibility means that the work week has no defined boundaries. If their day starts at 4:30am on a Peloton, so can yours (minus the Peloton). If there is a blank space in your calendar, they grab it. If they have a question on a Sunday, they send it over by email—and then text, WhatsApp and voicemail, just to make sure that the weekend is genuinely disturbed. It is a wonder they don’t turn up at the doorstep. A recent paper by Maria Ibanez of Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University found that offering schedule flexibility on job adverts increases the likelihood that people will apply. But it also discovered that applications decrease markedly when adverts require workers to work at managers’ discretion.

If workers balk at the boss’s version of flexible scheduling, managers have a different worry: that giving employees too much control over their hours can backfire. Asynchronous working, which involves individuals contributing to a project in their own time, is all very well. But if teams are to function effectively then they sometimes have to work as a group. Managers can have perfectly legitimate reasons to contact employees at odd hours and to expect an immediate response. Compressing work weeks into four days might well give workers more time to pursue their love of kayaking but be less brilliant for customers.

Just as a blend of home and office is a sensible answer to demands for flexibility in location, a mixed approach is the right way to think about flexible schedules. Brian Elliott runs research into the future of work for Slack, a messaging firm. He specifies “core collaboration hours" for his own team, which is when most meetings and group activities happen. The company has instituted “focus Fridays", a day when there are no internal meetings and employees get on with their own tasks. If Mr Elliott does need to contact people outside working hours, he does so by text so they are not logged in all the time.

Boundaries of this sort will upset the absolutists. Managers have to think harder about interrupting people. Workers cannot pick and choose their hours at will. But a bit of thought can stop people from being their own worst enemies. For bosses, getting a swift answer to an unimportant question causes more trouble than it is worth. For employees, the flexibility to work outside standard hours is double-edged: Laura Giurge of London School of Economics and Kaitlin Woolley of Cornell University have found that choosing to work at a weekend or on a bank holiday reduces motivation precisely because these days are associated in their minds with non-work activities. For flexibility to be genuinely useful, it requires a firm skeleton.

Read more from Bartleby, our columnist on management and work: 

From high-speed rail to the Olympics, why do big projects go wrong? (Mar 16th)

The small consolations of office irritations (Mar 9th) 

The uses and abuses of hype (Mar 2nd)

Also: How the Bartleby column got its name

© 2023, The Economist Newspaper Limited. All rights reserved. From The Economist, published under licence. The original content can be found on

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