As more companies create flexible work plans and incorporate these options into their core strategies, it may be tempting to think that the fight for flex is over. That everyone who needs to shift hours or work from home or utilize some other kind of flexibility has the opportunity to do so.

Of course, that’s not the case. While the progress toward increased flexibility is notable, many people still cannot access flexible work options. And sometimes, it is the people who need it most who are least likely to have it.

That fact is confirmed in a recent study by Ellen Ernst Kossek, a director at the Butler Center for Leadership Excellence at Purdue University Krannert School of Management, and Brenda A. Lautsch, associate dean at the Beedie School of Business at Simon Fraser University. The study, titled “Work-Life Flexibility for Whom? Occupational Status and Work-Life Inequality in Upper, Middle, and Lower Level Jobs,” was published in Academy of Management Annals.

Writing about their study in a Harvard Business Review article, Kossek and Lautsch said they analyzed trends across 186 studies of work-life flexibility and its impacts. They paid special attention to whether flex programs had consistent benefits for all types of workers, “as well as whether they were highly paid and occupied a managerial or professional position, or were semi-skilled or lower in the distribution of income and skill in the labor market. We also noted whether workers at the lower, middle, or higher ends of the firm were present in the same research.”

They found that, though many studies have been done on the topic, few considered job differences among workers in the need for, and experience of, work-life flexibility.

“We were even surprised to find little consistency in the definition of work-life flexibility,” they said. “In total, there are over 50 theories used in the management and organizations’ literature to describe the consequences of work-life flexibility on employees and organizations. In order to integrate and make sense of these definitions, we developed our own, which went through a blind review: employment scheduling practices that are designed to give employees greater control over when, where, how much, or how continuously work is done. Many practices in organizations fit within this definition, including flex time, telecommuting, reduced-load work, and parental leaves.”

Starting from that base, they first noted that not all employees have the same challenges, and thus they have different work-flex needs.

“For example, retail, food, and other workers in hourly jobs that pay at or close to the minimum wage often struggle to get sufficient predictable (and sometimes enough) work hours to care for their families,” Kossek and Lautsch wrote. “They would benefit from being able to control their work hours through flex time and having greater control over schedules and time off, as well as the ramping up of hours when it fits their lives. Yet these are the workers who rarely have access to control over when they work.”

Such workers are also less likely to have access to paid sick time and parental leave, even though they need both, the researchers said.

An earlier article from Working Mother also emphasizes the serious nature of this problem.

“Some 75 million U.S. workers are paid by the hour, and 61 percent of them are women earning a median wage of $11.49 per hour, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics,” the article says. “Simply put, most of these women face a disheartening combination of rigid shift hours coupled with unpredictable scheduling—both of which can take a toll on family life, says Susan Lambert, PhD, an associate professor at the University of Chicago who studies these issues. ‘It’s very difficult to line up consistent child care, participate in family activities, or even do simple things like cook family meals when you aren’t sure when and how much you’re going to work,’ she notes.”

On the other hand, people in middle- and higher-income positions tend to do better when it comes to flexibility, although the picture for them isn’t all sunshine and roses, either.

Kossek and Lautsch note that “managerial, professional, and other workers at the upper stratus of the labor market—those with the most access to flexibility arrangements that offer control—face problems of work intensification, role overload, and boundary management challenges. For example, some workers are asked to complete a full-time workload during part-time hours.

“People can have too much work to do in too little time or too many internal and external client demands. And with 24/7 connectivity, many of us are attached to our phones, checking work communications during personal time off the job (and, conversely, social media and other personal messages when working).”

These differences in needs and experiences among workers have led to a new problem, which the researchers call “work-life inequality.” They define that as “unequal opportunities to access work-life supports (the flexibility to control work schedules, workloads, time off, or location of work).”

Fortunately, they said, some businesses and organizations are starting to recognize and address this inequality. For example, a major grocery and food company worked with Kossek on policy changes that allowed employees to gain more control. Among those changes, the company “implemented a ‘respecting time off policy’ that trained workers and managers to not communicate with coworkers regarding minor nonemergency work matters during a day off. Managers and employees reported higher well-being in these stores.”

As is usually the case, companies that implement work flexibility plans that are fair to all employees find that both their workers and their bottom lines tend to benefit. Kossek and Lautsch argue that more businesses must try to match employees’ work-life needs to their ability to gain control through flexibility.

“Our research suggests that it may not simply be the work-life flexibility practices themselves that can harm or benefit productivity; instead, it’s how employers manage equality in access, use, and implementation,” the researchers said in the HBR article. “Employers play a critical role in redesigning workplaces to provide all employees with greater control over how their work is reconciled with their personal lives. If done thoughtfully and fairly, it can lead to positive payoffs for organizations, people, and society.”

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