Workers who have flexibility in when, where, and how they do their jobs tend to have better work-life balance, improved health, and increased productivity. Both scientific studies and anecdotal evidence support these conclusions.

But that doesn’t necessarily mean flexibility is an easy answer to every work-related challenge.

A recent study published in European Sociological Review, “Gender Discrepancies in the Outcomes of Schedule Control on Overtime Hours and Income in Germany (2016)” shows that people who have more control over their schedules tend to work longer hours than those who have less control. And while those flexible schedule workers also earn more money, the study found that such benefits are not shared equally by men and women.

Researchers Yvonne Lott and Heejung Chung are the authors of the study. They used data from the German Socio-Economic Panel Study, a representative panel study of German households that started in 1984. For the purposes of their research, they used the SOEP’s information on working-time arrangements that was observed in the years 2003, 2005, 2007, 2009, and 2011.

In their study, they observed the effects on overtime and income of people who had the opportunity to enjoy “flexitime,” which is defined as “control over one’s work schedule within certain limits,” and “working-time autonomy,” which provides “(almost) full control over when and how long one works.”

The authors noted that employees tend to seek flexibility in order to improve work-life balance, spend more time with family, or gain the potential financial benefits that can come with control. Businesses, on the other hand, may hope to boost productivity or improve employee engagement by offering flexible work options.

The truly fascinating results of the study come when looking at the impact of flexibility on hours worked and on income, especially in relation to gender differences.

Control, Gender, and Overtime

A variety of studies cited by the authors show that, when they have more control over their schedules, men tend to “work longer and more intensely, while women are more likely to increase activities outside the workplace,” the ESR article said. That means allowing schedule control can actually enforce traditional gender arrangements, as “women use the flexible measures to reconcile duties outside work with work, while men increase their work effort when time boundaries are relaxed or missing.”

The data examined in the study seem to support these conclusions.

“On average, employees with working-time autonomy work the longest overtime hours, working almost 4 hours more overtime compared to individuals with fixed schedules,” the ESR article said. “When switching from fixed schedules to flexitime, workers work more than half an hour more overtime per week and almost one and a half hours more when switching to working-time autonomy.

“Looking at between-estimates, compared to women, men work significantly longer overtime when using working-time autonomy; men with working-time autonomy work more than five hours more overtime than those with fixed schedules, whereas for women this difference is 2 hours.”

However, since women in the study were more likely to work part-time than men, that also needed to be taken into account. When only full-time workers were compared, the gender-gap in overtime was much smaller. And when people who were changing their level of schedule control were considered, it basically disappeared.

“Women in full-time positions increase their overtime to a similar extent as men when changing from fixed schedules to flexitime and to working-time autonomy,” the ESR article said. “Both full-time working men and women seem to undertake a similar amount of additional overtime hours, when given schedule control and time boundaries are relaxed or missing.”

While both men and women noted in the study were working extra hours by choice, this particular result of offering more flexibility merits further consideration. A recent BBC article talked about people who work flexible hours living in a permanent state of guilt that may contribute to their decision to work longer.

In the BBC piece, study author Chung said people who have more control over their work hours tend to worry more when they are not at work, “and this is especially the case for those workers with most control over when and where they work.”

This plays out to an extreme level when looking at the incredibly long hours worked by investment bankers. As pointed out in a recent interview with researcher Alexandra Michel on this blog, such a situation shows that “flexibility is only as good as the culture behind it. For employees and employers both to reap its benefits, it’s critical to set clear expectations—and boundaries.”

Control, Gender, and Income

When it comes to income, increased schedule control can bring more overtime, which translates into higher pay. Based on the “happy worker thesis,” the ESR article said, employees also could see income gains due to an increase in work effectiveness and productivity.

The study did find those income gains. Employees with flexitime and working-time autonomy earned about 2,800 euros and 6,200 euros more, respectively, compared to workers with fixed schedules. But this “flexibility premium” was definitely impacted by gender.

“Men with working-time autonomy earn almost 6,700 euros more per year than those with fixed schedules when taking overtime into account,” the ESR article said. “Women, by contrast, benefit significantly less by having working-time autonomy, earning only around 2,000 euros more compared to those with fixed schedules.”

Since some have suggested that offering more flexibility could help overcome the gender gap in pay, this is a result worth exploring. And the authors of the ESR study offered several possible explanations.

“First of all, men and women may have different motivations when using schedule control, which may end with different outcomes as well,” the article said. “For women, schedule control may be used to meet their family demands, and may even forsake additional income for its access. Additional analyses have shown that mothers increase their overtime hours sometimes to even a larger extent than women in general, yet they don’t even receive the same income gains through overtime hours as other workers. Thus, there is evidence to show that mothers may even be trading-off overtime hours for the increased control over their work. …

“However, beyond workers’ own motivations, this discrepancy may be due to employers’ discriminatory perceptions. Thus, even when women use schedule control for performance goals and increase their overtime hours and/or work intensity when gaining schedule control, their efforts might not be perceived as such by employers who might hold traditional gender role ideals.”

This study shows that people who have more control over their work hours may reap the benefits of better work-life balance and higher pay. But they also need to be aware of the possibility that they may work significantly longer hours, and that gender discrepancies may be reinforced by the way such flex arrangements are implemented.

Learn more from researcher Heejung Chung in her “Think Kent” lecture on flexible work:

Have you found that flex employees at your company tend to work more and earn more? What gender discrepancies have you seen regarding flexible work arrangements? What part of this study was most surprising to you, and why? Please share your ideas in the comments section.

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