When talking about the use of flexible work arrangements, we most often seem to think that they are utilized for the good of the individual employees. That is, flexibility makes balancing the demands of work and personal life easier: It helps working parents to take care of work responsibilities and childcare, it makes time-consuming hobbies possible for working employees and makes individuals’ time management easier for example by reducing commuting time. Undoubtedly, flexibility is beneficial for individual employees.
However, recent research by Shockley and Allen (2012) shows that actually these kinds of life management motives may not be the main reason why flexible work arrangements are used.
Interestingly, Shockley and Allen’s study implies that flexible work options are most often used because of work related motives. Simply, this means that many employees work at odd hours and at other places than the office not because it would make their life easier but because they want to be effective and increase productivity at work. Importantly, then, using flexible work arrangements is not always based on choice: rather, individual employees may be forced to work this way because of the demands of their work. Work may require contacting overseas colleagues at odd hours, or it may be that the work place that the employer provides does not support the needs of the work – it e.g., may be too restless for tasks that require concentration forcing employees to conduct tasks at home. Importantly, when flexibility is used because of work related motives, it is the employing organization that benefits from employees’ flexibility: work is done effectively and productively and the business may flourish.
Of course, the reality is not black and white: Both life management and work related motives for using flexible work options have been noted to be important for employees at the same time. However, Shockley and Allen’s study reminds us that it is time to change our attitudes and remember the both sides of the coin: Flexible work policies should not be viewed only as benefiting individuals (and being part of organizational work-family policy) but also as benefiting organizations by improving their productivity. In an ideal situation it is a win-win situation – both individual employees and their organizations benefit. But what happens if and when an employee wishes not to utilize flexibility but is forced to do so because of the demands of his or her work? Are organizations prepared for this?