Jacquelyn B. James, PhD

Jacquelyn B. James, PhDCo-director, Center on Aging & Work, Boston CollegeResearch Professor, Lynch School of Education, Boston College

Even though many aspects of workplace flexibility are common knowledge, some have received scant attention and deserve more, because their effectiveness has been demonstrated clearly by research and practice. By the same token, other aspects—also seldom discussed—have negative consequences that should be recognized. Here are some examples.

Flexible work options can be appropriate for hourly and low-wage workers.

We tend to think of professional and managerial workers as prime beneficiaries of flexible work options, because many people in these jobs already make their own hours. In other jobs, such as retail sales and food service, flexible work options are unusual. The reason seems clear enough: Employers need to have workers on the job to keep stores and restaurants well-staffed during business hours. So add flexible work options to the list of benefits beyond the reach of low-wage workers that more privileged employees take for granted.

It doesn’t have to be that way. In 2008, Jennifer Swanberg, a professor of social work at the University of Maryland, and I surveyed hourly and professional employees of a national retail chain. Our CitiSales study (linked below) found that managerial support and innovative thinking made flexible work options realistic even for the chain’s low-wage hourly sales staff. Our study also showed that employees who have these options are more engaged in their work than those who don’t.

Flexible work options can happen even in the absence of organizational support.

In organizations that lack flexible work option policies, some managers implement them anyway—informally, but with commitment. These supervisors are “positive deviants,” going against the grain in the interests both of employees and the business. For example, one might tell an employee that it’s okay to take a longer lunch to check on an ailing parent, so long as the time can be made up later. Or a coworker might be allowed to swap shifts with a friend whose childcare fell through. Or an employee’s work schedule might be kept free on a given night so the employee can serve on the school board. Acts like these can be contagious in an organization when others see how well they work for the employee and the business.

Flexible work options (or the lack thereof) affect the whole work group, and sometimes those effects can be negative.

Most workers understand that the availability of flexible work options affects the whole group, not just the employees who uses them. On the plus side, these options—even to workers who don’t use them— are signals that the employer cares about the staff’s well-being. Thus, studies show  that policies used by only a few employees can have positive effects on the engagement and organizational commitment of the workforce as a whole.

Unfortunately, if the options aren’t well managed, their effects on the workforce can be negative. A worker might use a flexible work option again and again to trade for a more desirable shift, leaving others to take the undesirable shifts more often than they would otherwise. It’s easy to imagine the mounting dissatisfaction and resentment that such a policy could cause, if a supervisor did not step in to manage the fairness of the employee’s requests. As the results of this center’s Time & Place Management study show, successful flexible work options need to be actively managed. Both supervisors and workers need to understand that “no” can be a legitimate answer to a request for a flexible work option, if the effects on the work group would be counterproductive.

Painting the benefits of flexible work options with a broad brush can have a negative impact on morale, too. Employers and workers need to understand that, although flexible work options can be a win-win proposition, they work best with careful and ongoing management.

For employers

Benchmark yourself against similar employers in flexible work options, as well as other policies, and get customized tips: Workforce Benchmark Tool

Learn more

About Flexible Work Options: Quick Insights from the 2015 Talent Management Study
About Schedule Flexibility in the Workplace: 
Employee Access and Use, Implementation and Effectiveness
About the CitySales Study: Study Description
About the Time & Place Management Study: Study Description


Jacquelyn B. James, PhD
Co-directorCenter on Aging & Work, Boston College
Research ProfessorLynch School of Education, Boston College
Email: jacquelyn.james@bc.edu