While working as a management consultant for two years prior to graduate school, the first author, Alison Wynn, experienced firsthand the intensive work-life expectations that characterize the industry—and many other high-status industries. She became fascinated by the cultural underpinnings of the long hours, extensive travel, and emphasis on “face time.” Despite robust efforts on the part of companies to offer cutting-edge flexibility programs, she could see these programs fell short of their intended effects – providing employees with viable solutions to work-life conflict. This motivated us to pursue research exploring these challenges in more depth.
In an article that was recently published based on some of these data, we analyzed 50 in-depth interviews with management consultants at the top firms. We focused on exactly this issue: management consulting firms provide amongst the best flexibility policies intended to help their employees manage the extensive demands of their work. Yet, in line with our own initial impressions – and as previous research has documented – these policies were not enthusiastically embraced by employees. Why? Prior research has highlighted the role of “flexibility stigma,” which is the notion that using flexibility policies sends a signal to colleagues and superiors that you are not serious about your work. While compelling, we felt this was an incomplete explanation. In our manuscript, we argue that “perceived control” – or the sense control that employees feel they have over managing their work-life conflicts – is a powerful motivator in imbuing a sense of agency and encouraging private and individual solutions to work-life conflict.
In the article, we explain various aspects of perceived control: for example, how our participants saw managing their work-life commitments as a professional test, and how they viewed their ability to manage their work-life challenges as a testament to their suitability for this profession. But one important element that did not make it into the final manuscript was the problematic definition of success at these companies. The very understanding of what makes an employee successful contains built-in assumptions – such as the assumption that long hours translate to better results – when the reality often starkly contrasts with these assumptions. This definition of success was reinforced both culturally, in company norms, as well as structurally, in project assignments and evaluation procedures. By enshrining a definition of success wedded to ideal worker norms, companies create an environment that casts doubt upon flexibility programs promising work-life balance; employees wonder whether they can use available flexibility programs without compromising their own success.
Our study provides evidence that flexibility policies will continue to fall short until and unless they are accompanied by cultural shifts in what “success” entails and how much workplaces can demand from their employees.
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Working time arrangements have become another source of inequality in American society. The once standard 8-hour day and 40-hour workweek that emerged and reigned throughout much of the 20th century have given way to an increasing variety of working-time arrangements. Flexible schedules, in which hours can vary daily or weekly, and nonstandard work arrangements, such as fixed term, on-call, temporary, or part-time, are widely used at the workplace. While professionals and the highly skilled workers may have some control over the flexibility in their working time, the vast majority of Americans have little or no control. In non-union workplaces, the employer decides the work schedule, and it is common for low wage workers to work under zero-hour contracts that make no guarantees of weekly working hours and require employees to work on very short notice with unpredictable schedules. These types of zero-hour contracts not only make it difficult to plan one’s family life but make it difficult to count on a reliable income.
This special issue highlights the diversity of working time arrangements internationally. The introductory article establishes a framework for analyzing the diversity of working time across countries, whereas the other articles demonstrate empirically the effects of different working time arrangements across a variety of institutional environments. This special issue makes clear the significant behavioral and economic impacts of working time arrangements such as forms of short and long part-time work, 35-hour workweeks, and working time accounts. Moreover, it shows the importance of national policies and employee voice in ensuring that working time arrangements balance the interests of employers and employees.
When one looks beyond the United States, it becomes clear that very different realities about working time exist. Some emerging economies, such as Singapore and China, are not deregulating working time but are instead seeking greater regulation of the standard working week to protect their workers from extreme working hours and to introduce more efficient forms of work organization (Lee, McCann, and Messenger 2007; also see Cao and Rubin’s article in this issue). In other developed countries, standard working hours have been reduced to less than 40 hours (Cabrita and Galli da Bino 2013); for example, France established a statutory workweek of 35 hours in 2000. In many European countries, workers possess the legal right to request variable work hours. Workers also have more choice across short working-time practices that provide prorated benefits and equal pay per hour. In some European countries, workers are able to take paid and unpaid leaves during certain phases of their work lives, and labor unions and employers alter working-time practices through negotiation. Countries with lower wage inequality and a smaller low-wage sector than the United States are associated with shorter working hours for workers across the income distribution (Bell and Freeman 2001). The main reason for this is the reduced pressure on low-wage workers to work more hours and the higher marginal tax rates for increasing work hours in countries with low wage inequality (Bosch and Lehndorff 2001).
The articles in this issue reflect the range of realities. They highlight the diversity of working-time practices across countries and the implications of these practices for workers and firms. The articles focus on a number of countries and are in some cases explicitly comparative. They examine a number of working-time practices including weekly working hours, flexible work schedules, and part-time work. In their analyses, the authors show how the institutional context can have differential effects on working-time practices and working-time outcomes. For example, annualized hours contracts and working-time accounts can be positive forms of flexibility for workers to vary work hours and to take time off when they need it. These practices, however, can also provide a means to shift risk to employees when they lack control over their schedules and cannot access time banked in their accounts.