Considering workplace flexibility

Some jobs offer more flexibility than others where a worker has an opportunity to structure their own schedule or make it to other important events in life that are held during typical work hours. Sociologist Alfred Young has looked into the issue of workplace flexibility and recently made a report to a conference:

When an assembly-line worker at a Midwestern auto-parts plant studied by Alford A. Young Jr. , a sociology professor at the University of Michigan, left work without permission to coach his son’s football team in a championship game, he paid a high price, Young told about 200 researchers, government officials and employers Tuesday at a Washington, D.C. conference on flexibility.

The story sprang from a study of the means employees use to resolve work-family conflicts–collaborating with the boss vs. sneaking around. The worker, whom Dr. Young called James, had committed to coaching his son’s team, and when the team made the championship round he asked to take a Saturday afternoon off to be present. The boss said no.

When the day arrived, James left work for lunch and later called his boss to say that his car had broken down, saying “ ‘I called Triple-A but I don’t know if I can make it back,’ ” Young says. James got to coach the game, but he also got written up by his supervisor and busted to a lower seniority level.

Such disruptions can be avoided, Young says, if supervisors bend a little, perhaps even breaking a rule or two, to try to find a solution within the work team, perhaps by allowing a shift trade; this benefits employers by motivating employees to go the extra mile and remain loyal to the company.  While this happens routinely at many workplaces, about 80% of all workers still lack the workplace flexibility they want, according to the Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, the conference sponsor. What doesn’t work, his study found, allowing to develop the kind of clash that encompassed James.

I feel like a lot of the talk about telecommuting and the changes that might come to the workplace due to changing technology might really be about increasing the flexibility of workers. If the main concern is that a job gets done, perhaps it doesn’t matter as much whether an employee keeps certain office hours. Younger workers also seem to like the idea of flexibility, to not be completely tied down because of a job. But perhaps even the American small business spirit could be tied to this issue – some people enjoy being able to set their own hours and agenda.  But this may not apply in the same way to areas like manufacturing.

If 80% of workers desire more flexibility, is this something more businesses and organizations should address? I would be interested in knowing what holds businesses back from being more flexible with workers. Profits? Appearances? A certain workplace culture? Directives from higher-ups?

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