Flexible workplace and COVID-19 Pandemic

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In a traditional office setting in the United States, employees report to work Monday through Friday and work at least forty hours a week, typically scheduled during regular business hours. In workplaces offering flexible work policies, however, employers and employees agree on an alternative arrangement that benefits both parties.

Flexible workplace policies enable employees to adjust where they work, when they work, and the number of hours they devote to their job per week. According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in 2017–2018, nearly 30 percent of employees could work from home and 57 percent of employees had some flexibility in their work hours.

What is in the article:

  • Flexible work policies allow employees to adjust their schedules, the number of hours they work, and where they work.
  • Proponents of flexible work arrangements maintain that they allow employees to maintain a better work-life balance and benefit society as a whole by reducing fossil fuel consumption and enabling employees to use less gas.
  • Flexible workplace policies can have some drawbacks for employees, and those who telecommute may actually end up working longer hours.
  • In 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic forced many companies to transition to virtual operations and many employers began to shift their views on flexible work policies.

In 2020 the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic transformed workplace culture. In an effort to slow the spread of the virus, many workplaces closed and employees transitioned to remote work. In September 2020, half a year into the crisis, 33 percent of US employees worked remotely full-time, and 25 percent worked remotely for part of the workweek. For those who continued to work on-site, social distancing protocols and collaborating with coworkers virtually also shifted their experience in the workplace. Analysts predict that the COVID-19 pandemic will have an impact on how the workforce operates in the future.

Workplaces offer a variety of flexible work policies. With a flexible work schedule, often referred to as flextime, employees can adjust their start and end times as long as they are still working the same number of hours each week. In a compressed workweek, an employee works fewer than five days a week by working longer hours, such as ten hours per day for four days a week. Part-time workers work fewer hours than their employers consider full time, typically up to forty hours per week. This may be a permanent arrangement or may be offered on a temporary basis to employees undergoing major life transitions. Job sharing is a form of part-time work in which two or more employees share the responsibilities, hours, and salary normally accorded to a single full-time employee.

Flexible workplace policies also allow employees to adjust where they work. Telecommuting enables employees to work remotely. Employees may complete all hours remotely or divide their time between home and the office. Expanded leave allows employees to have more flexibility in requesting extended time off from work. Expanded leave, which can be paid or unpaid time off from work, is often used for medical emergencies, sabbaticals, educational pursuits, or family issues.

Flexible work policies can also apply to retirement. Phased retirement involves an agreement between the employee and the employer to a schedule that gradually reduces the employee’s work commitments over a period of months or years. Partial retirement allows older employees to continue working on a part-time basis, usually with no prearranged end date for the flexible arrangement.

Those in favor of flexible work arrangements believe that they allow employees to maintain a better work-life balance, which also provides benefits for employers. Employees with a better work-life balance are less likely to bring family conflicts to work, more productive and satisfied with their jobs, and less likely to seek another job. A 2019 survey by FlexJobs found that 30 percent of employees left a job because their employer did not offer any flexible work options, and 16 percent were seeking a new job because of a lack of flexibility in their current workplace. Of those surveyed, 80 percent said they would be more loyal to a workplace if the employer offered flexible work options. In addition to employee loyalty, flexible workplaces attract more potential employees.

This wider pool of talent can also increase diversity in the workplace. In addition, under the global economy, employers may find it strategic to coordinate some employees’ work schedules with those of clients and customers around the world. Remote work can also lead to cost savings for the company. Research shows that a company can save approximately $11,000 per year for every employee who works remotely half of the time.

In addition to business benefits, proponents of flexible workplaces also argue that their benefits accrue to society as a whole. Telecommuting allows people to reduce fossil fuel consumption, while flexible work schedules enable employees to use less gas by commuting at off-peak times. Proponents of flexible workplaces also claim that such policies expand the number of people able to participate in paid work, which, in turn, helps the economy expand.

Research has shown that flexible work policies improve gender equality in the workplace. A 2017 study by Remote.co found that companies with large remote workforces have more women in leadership roles than traditional businesses. The study highlighted that flexible work policies remove many of the barriers that make it more difficult for women to advance in the workplace.

Employers have some concerns about flexible workplaces, including the potential that employees will abuse the policies and the logistics of supervising flexibly employed workers. Particular arrangements may lead to additional complications—for instance, telecommuting may render employees unavailable during peak meeting hours. Some common concerns business managers have about remote work policies are changes to the existing company culture, reduced employee focus, diminished team cohesiveness, risks to data security, and reduced employee productivity.

Flexible workplace policies also have some drawbacks for employees. For example, employees who telecommute may actually end up working longer hours because they may feel more pressure to appear productive than when working in person at the office. In this way, a set of policies intended to help workers maintain better work-life balance may actually erode that balance further.

Employers often pit flexible workplace policies against overtime protections. In May 2016, during the presidential administration of Barack Obama, the US Department of Labor (DOL) raised the minimum salary level at which employees are eligible for overtime pay, reclassifying some employees as hourly workers. At that time, many employers asserted that it would be impossible for formerly salaried workers to access flexibility policies if their hours had to be monitored.

In November 2016, a federal judge blocked the rule from taking effect and, in August 2017, struck down the rule. In September 2019 the DOL under the presidential administration of Donald Trump extended mandatory overtime pay. The new rule had a lower income threshold ($35,568) than the 2016 policy ($47,000) and also removed a key part of the 2016 plan that would take inflation into consideration for future changes to the threshold.

Flexible jobs also tend to be less stable than their more rigidly scheduled counterparts. Contingent work is a related practice in which workers are contracted to complete specific tasks on a seasonal or as-needed basis but are not hired as employees. Contingent labor may offer a flexible schedule and the chance to work from home, but it removes the potential for a steady salary, reliable access to work, and employer benefits.

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For these reasons, flexible jobs are sometimes referred to as “precarious work.” Since 2010 the United States has seen a rise in the gig economy, which includes on-call and temp workers as well as independent contractors. Research shows that nontraditional work arrangements are becoming more common. As of December 2019, a quarter of US workers had multiple jobs.

Legislators have attempted to provide some protections to the contingent workforce with mixed results. For example, on January 1, 2020, California Assembly Bill 5 (AB5), also known as the “gig worker bill,” went into effect. The legislation required companies such as Uber and DoorDash that hire gig workers in large numbers to reclassify their independent contractors as employees.

The bill sparked controversy, and in September 2020 the California legislature passed Assembly Bill 2257, which exempted more job categories from AB5. Later that year, California voters approved Proposition 22, which legally designates drivers for gig economy companies as independent contractors.

Flexible workplace policies are most commonly implemented in office settings offering middle-class jobs. Low-wage workers in the service, retail, and hospitality industries are less discussed in debates about the benefits and drawbacks of a flexible workplace. Such workers often have no choice but to work erratic hours with short notice. In the twenty-first century, some large retailers have attempted to cut costs through the use of “just-in-time” scheduling, a practice in which workers are kept on call in case of a customer rush. Just-in-time workers must be prepared to work but may never be called in.

Many proposed reforms contend that making low-wage work less flexible protects low-wage workers from exploitation. For example, since 2015 San Francisco has required employers to post worker shifts at least two weeks in advance. Such reforms presume that for low-wage workers, predictability, rather than flexibility, is essential for achieving work-life balance. A 2016 New York law establishes protections for freelance workers including the right to a written work contract and the right to be paid in a timely manner.

New Hampshire, Vermont, and San Francisco have passed “right-to-request” laws, which give workers the right to request flexible arrangements at work. A number of workplace flexibility bills have been proposed in Congress since 2010, such as the Working Families Flexibility Act of 2020, which would allow private-sector workers to have the flexibility to use compensatory time off in place of overtime pay. Congress has also proposed the Flexibility for Working Families Act of 2017, which allows employees to request flexibility in their work schedules and the ability to work remotely, and the Schedules That Work Act of 2019, which allows low-wage employees to have more certainty in their income and work schedules. As of January 2021, none of these bills have been enacted into law.

Following the influx of women into the workforce after the 1970s, feminists began to campaign for flexible workplace policies, stating that a women-friendly workplace is intrinsically a flexible workplace—one in which flexible hours and job-sharing programs enable workers to balance their work and family obligations.

Workers who use flexible workplace policies may be marginalized for not prioritizing paid work over caregiving work. Because caregiving is often seen as a woman’s role, men may be more stigmatized than women when using flexibility options to care for family members. Hence, women in heterosexual relationships are expected to work more flexibly than their spouses while also facing a “flexibility stigma” for appearing less dedicated to their jobs. Policy analysts have argued that alternative solutions such as a reduction of the standard workweek may be more effective in enabling workers of all genders to be both employees and caregivers.

The conversation around workplace flexibility has gradually become more gender-neutral as workplace flexibility has increased in importance for both women and men. A 2019 Boston Consulting Group (BCG) study found that 60 percent of working mothers and 52 percent of working fathers face difficulties balancing work and family. Of workers at companies with no flexible work option, 20 percent of women and 30 percent of men were more likely to seek new work options for more flexibility.

BCG has found that millennial men are more likely than those of previous generations to be more involved with domestic responsibilities at home and seek more flexibility at work. Analysts contend that flexible work arrangements are an increasing retention component for the entire workforce, not just working mothers.

Think About it!

  • For what reasons are flexible jobs viewed as being less stable?
  • Do you believe that teleworking allows employees to maintain a better work-life balance? Why or why not?
  • In your opinion, will the changes in office work necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic have a lasting impact on employers’ views on workplace flexibility? Explain your reasoning.

 

In 2020 the COVID-19 pandemic disrupted the operations of many workplaces across the nation. Many companies transitioned to virtual operations, and those who retained in-person operations had to implement new safety guidelines and procedures. The pandemic prompted many employers to shift their views on flexible work arrangements.

According to a 2020 survey by Mercer, a workplace benefits consulting firm, 83 percent of employers plan to keep in place after the pandemic flexible work policies such as allowing employees to modify their own schedules. Of those surveyed, 94 percent of employers found their company productivity was the same or higher than before the pandemic and 73 percent expect at least a quarter of their workforce to work remotely after the crisis.

The pandemic caused mass layoffs and furloughs across the country. By April 2020 eighteen million US workers were on temporary layoff. Analysts predict that at least one-third of all workers furloughed in 2020 will be laid off permanently. According to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities, the majority of jobs lost amidst the COVID-19 crisis have been in low-paying industries, which accounted for 58 percent of jobs lost from February to December 2020. Job loss during the pandemic also affected women disproportionately. By September 2020 women accounted for 53.9 percent of all the jobs lost since the beginning of the crisis.

While many companies adopted flexible work policies during the pandemic, the crisis highlighted the class divide in workplace flexibility. A December 2020 report by the Pew Research Center found that 62 percent of US workers with a bachelor’s degree or higher reported that their work could be done remotely. Conversely, only 23 percent of those without a four-year college degree could work from home.

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