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Feb. 2, 2006 • Volume 14 Number 10

Assoc. Prof. Jeffrey Cohen (CSOM) and Assoc. Prof. Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes (GSSW).

How Flexible Is Flex-time?

BC researchers take a look at issues regarding flexible work arrangements

By Sean Smith
Chronicle Editor

Flexible work arrangements (FWAs), which offer alternatives to the now traditional Monday-Friday, 9-5 model, are becoming a major trend in many career fields and, experts say, are likely to gain in popularity.

But as Boston College researchers Assoc. Prof. Jeffrey Cohen (CSOM) and Assoc. Prof. Marcie Pitt-Catsouphes (GSSW) note, social change seldom takes place in a straight, unbroken line, nor is the transition uniformly smooth.

The two faculty members in recent months have written on some compelling issues relating to FWAs, drawing on themes of justice and ethics reflected in their respective disciplines, accounting and social work.

In their paper, "Is it the Kids or the Schedule? The Incremental Effect of Families and Flexible Scheduling on Perceived Career Success," Cohen and co-authors Elizabeth D. Almer and former CSOM faculty member Louise Single focused on a single field - accounting - and how its professional culture has been reluctant to fully embrace FWAs. Their work won the American Accounting Association 2005 award for best paper on work/family issues.

"Public accounting has had a reputation for not being family-friendly," says Cohen. "But retaining experienced people has become critical in the profession, especially given the financial services-related scandals in recent years, so many accounting firms have introduced FWAs."

Cohen and his co-authors found that FWA participants are viewed as less likely to advance and as less committed than individuals without children, or those professionals with or without families who do not participate in FWAs.

"It's important to stress that while this study is not suggesting a conscious, staunch opposition to family-friendly policies," says Cohen, "there is an idea that those who opt for FWAs are less inclined to make the necessary sacrifices to meet the demands of public accounting.

"But FWA participants tend to be assigned to less challenging tasks, which means they don't get a chance to develop important skill sets, and so the organization winds up shortchanging itself.

"This raises an ethical question of what can be done to change the culture in public accounting so as to foster support for accounting professionals who want to balance family and career," says Cohen.

In "A Question of Justice: Disparities in Employees' Access to Flexible Schedule Arrangements," published in the Journal of Family Issues, Pitt-Catsouphes and collaborators Jennifer Swanberg and Krista Drescher-Burke took a wider view, examining the disparity between different employee groups - based on factors such as wage and education levels - in having access to flexible work arrangements.

"From a social work perspective, one of the basic questions to address here involves organizational justice," says Pitt-Catsouphes, co-director of The Center on Aging & Work/Workplace Flexibility at Boston College.

"As family-friendly initiatives have been introduced to the workplace, there's been widespread hope and expectation that these policies and programs will benefit employees and their families, as well as the sponsoring companies.

"But not everyone in the workforce has the same access to flexible work options, and we wanted to look at when, how and why that happens - and what the implications are. Generally, front-line hourly workers do not have the same type of schedule contol and flexibility as more senior employees. But by being creative, it is possible to give those employees some form of control - using technology to facilitate shift-swapping, for instance.

"Research strongly suggests that leveling the playing field between privileged and less privileged workers is likely to help organizations and firms create productive environments with loyal employees."

While they have no formal working arrangement as yet, Cohen and Pitt-Catsouphes are familiar with one another's research, and both welcome the additional voices to the growing discussion on FWAs and their impact on workplace, family and society.

"There's a larger issue here: We are reshaping our ideas of how we live," says Pitt-Catsouphes. "People are not as likely to view phases of life - education, work and retirement - as separate and distinct from one another, or as with a definitive beginning and end.

" This is one of the reasons why the research being conducted by our new Center on Aging and Work is so important. Work arrangements that allow employees to adjust their schedules as needed or desired are symbolic of this new perspective, and it's important to see how they affect our personal, familial and professional interactions, good or bad."

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