The case for flexible work arrangements

Employers need to stop equating face time with commitment.

By Mary Shapiro
Published February 2, 2007 10:36PM (EST)

Broadsheet editor's note: Two weeks ago, we wrote about a recent study (PDF) from the Simmons School of Management, in which researchers surveyed 400 women on their work-related decisions and goals; the resulting report asserted that working mothers and other working women are leading the charge toward flexible work arrangements (FWAs for short). The report observed that "being on the leading edge of shifting the career paradigm, women have found their ambition and commitment questioned by both the press and decision makers inside organizations. Women's career choices aren't seen as career self-agency. Instead, their decisions to work part-time, put boundaries around workload, or temporarily not work at all (all FWA choices) are seen as deficient, invalid and wrong. This judgment is evidenced in the language used to describe their choices: 'opting out,' 'off-ramping' and following 'mommy tracks' and 'scenic routes.'" Funny thing, though: The study concluded that "women are using FWAs to stay in the workplace rather than to opt out."

Broadsheet readers had mixed reactions to the report. Some shared their own FWA experiences and praised the paradigm shift, while others raised valid questions about the benefits and other support that are often sacrificed in the transition from a 9-to-5 (or, these days, 8-to-6) arrangement to an FWA.

Today, study coauthor Mary Shapiro, an assistant professor at the Simmons School of Management, responded to Broadsheet readers' concerns, and invited us to post her response in Broadsheet. Here it is:

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Many women do choose to be freelancers in order to get the flexibility that their employers wouldn't give them. As a result, they don't have benefits, life insurance, etc. The lack of flexibility continues to exist in most organizations because, exactly as you say, they subscribe to the "Victorian notion of paid work having to be rigidly supervised in an office." As you said, "the only thing that will work is a fundamental change in how we perceive work and employment." That is exactly our point. Employers need to stop equating "face time" with commitment, and measuring "billable hours" instead of productivity.

Our research supported our belief that women are (and have been for some time) at the leading edge of trying to get employers to change that notion of work and career. Our research said that women are doing this push for flexibility in great numbers, and that, at least for these 400, they were able to be successful in using FWAs to continue working full time while juggling family demands and making decent money.

We didn't say employers in general were becoming more accommodating, or that negotiating for FWAs is easy, or that leading a life juggling work (no matter how flexible) and family/outside-work life is easy. Ask any woman who has negotiated to leave work by 3 p.m. to be home when the kids get off the bus, only to get back online and do e-mail once the kids go to bed: That life is not easy. But it's the best she can do, given that she has kids to care for and bills to pay.

It's because women are out front on this career shift that it is so hard: Women have to push against outdated notions of work and career, deal with questions about their commitment and value, and still do good work and deal with their outside-job responsibilities. For some, it means leaving their rigid employers and going to work for themselves. It's why two out of three entrepreneurs today are women.

Mary Shapiro

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