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Workplace Flexibility Doesn't Hurt

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In a New York Times op-ed piece published last week, Susan J. Lambert contrasts the work-life conflicts facing salaried employees with those of hourly employees. She notes that salaried employees often seem to have too much work while their hourly counterparts often have too little:

"Professional positions come with fixed costs (yearly salaries and benefits like health insurance) that are incurred regardless of how many hours the employee works. So employers have an incentive to have those individuals work as much as possible...The inverse is true in hourly jobs, where employers have an incentive to keep each individual's work hours to a minimum..."

The point Lambert makes here is important. When we discuss work-life conflict, all too often we talk only about people in professional positions. But hourly employees also face work-family conflict, and indeed, they are in need of more predictability and stability in hours worked.

However, Lambert's language--at least the headline, "When Flexibility Hurts"--is misguided and potentially damaging to a movement that has enormous potential to help both employees and employers across the workplace spectrum. By headlining the piece "When Flexibility Hurts," the article leaves the mistaken impression that the problem facing hourly workers is that they have too much workplace flexibility. This is not the case at all. The employer tactics to which Lambert refers have nothing to do with workplace flexibility. Rather, they are cases of contingent staffing or just-in-time staffing; short-term methods that may help employers cut costs temporarily, but certainly do not provide increased flexibility for employees. In fact, they result in just the opposite: employees must remain on-call at all times in order to make ends meet, leaving them with very little room to fulfill any family commitments they may have.

What hourly workers need is a commitment from their employer that they will get enough hours--and the flexibility to meet family obligations, too. And no, this is not asking for too much. Numerous studies by Corporate Voices for Working Families have found that providing hourly workers with real workplace flexibility options has positive financial outcomes for businesses.

A wide-ranging body of research in the workplace flexibility field shows that allowing employees increased flexibility is beneficial not only to them, but to their employers as well. It creates engaged, fulfilled employees who are more productive; it decreases turnover and absenteeism; and it is good for a business's bottom line. This is true for businesses that employ salaried and hourly employees alike. Stability is not in conflict with flexibility.

The firestorm of conversation about work-life ignited by Anne-Marie Slaughter's recent article in the Atlantic included a discussion about the fact that oftentimes, only people on the higher end of the job ladder even feel they have the luxury to talk about workplace flexibility. This is not, and should not, be true. Salaried and hourly employees want and need the same thing: positions that allow them to meet the conflicting demands of work and family.

By providing real options for flexibility in where, when and how work gets done--for salaried and hourly employees alike--companies can help parents, older workers, people with disabilities and others, address the tremendous work-life conflict they currently face, and they can build stronger, sustainable businesses. If there is one thing we can say for certain, it's that flexibility is not the problem; it's the solution.