The Corner

The Market and Workplace Flexibility

Today, the New York Times reports that workplaces are increasingly embracing greater flexibility when it comes to workers’ schedules. The article focuses on the Netherlands, but notes that this trend is also advancing elsewhere. While women continue to make the most use of flexible job arrangements, men are also moving away from traditional schedules. The Times explains:

For reasons that blend tradition and modernity, three in four working Dutch women work part time. Female-dominated sectors like health and education operate almost entirely on job-sharing as even childless women and mothers of grown children trade income for time off. That has exacted an enduring price on women’s financial independence.

But in just a few years, part-time work has ceased being the prerogative of woman with little career ambition, and become a powerful tool to attract and retain talent — male and female — in a competitive Dutch labor market.

It’s tempting to evaluate such developments through the lens of gender wars. Is this creating more equality between the sexes or perpetuating women’s financial dependence on men?

That really should be beside the point. People — men and women alike, though to different degrees — generally prefer to be able to work and still spend time with children and on outside pursuits. Systems that enable people to realize their preferred mix of work and family time will lead to great happiness and fulfillment. This is a good thing.

Given technological developments, it makes sense that our workplaces would change. Computers, cell phones, and broadband make working remotely and at any time possible for many. If your job revolves around a computer, for the most part, there is little reason that you should have to sit in front of one computer from nine to five, five days a week.

However, this flexibility isn’t without costs, and not all jobs lend themselves to part-time or work-sharing. The article notes how part-time work in child-care centers and medical facilities can lead to less continuity of care and create challenges.

That’s why it seems important for flexible work arrangements to remain, well, flexible. Government mandates that all employers must offer a certain level of flexibility move us in the wrong direction, and could make the workplace less efficient.

A key ingredient to workplace flexibility is trust between employer and employee. An employee may negotiate an arrangement so that she doesn’t have to work on Mondays, but with the unwritten understanding that she may have to field a phone call or come in on an emergency basis. Employers may also understand that the worker may need to switch her day off on occasion. When the government intervenes, flexible structures inevitably become more rigid and can become less attractive for both parties.

Many workers value flexible work arrangements, so employers naturally realize they can benefit from offering more diverse work schedules. This is progress, and we should let the market do its work. 

Carrie Lukas — Carrie Lukas is the president of the Independent Women’s Forum.

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