Since 2015, Dr. Daniel Arnold has been a post-doctoral researcher in the department of “labor markets, human resource management and social policy” at the Centre for European Economic Research (ZEW), one of Germany’s leading nonprofit and independent economic research institutes located in Mannheim, Germany. He has focused his research on the topics of flexible work arrangements, health at work (including sickness absence and presenteeism) and skill shortages. He helped organize ZEW’s interdisciplinary conference on “Flexible Work in the Digital Age” in March 2017, which drew speakers and presenters from both Europe and the United States to a discussion of work flex and work-life balance. Dr. Arnold holds a master’s degree in political science and economics from Göttingen University and a Ph.D. in business economics from Trier University.

1MFWF: What is your personal interest in work flexibility within the context of broader economic research?

Daniel: I find two aspects of work flexibility particularly interesting. The first aspect regards work flexibility from the management perspective. Firms have to give up direct control over the work process when they allow workers to work from home, which gives them the opportunity to shirk. I find it particularly interesting to find out how firms can create a setting in which the management and individual supervisors are willing to give up this traditional form of control, which is a precondition for the implementation of flexible work schemes, such as working from home or trust-based working time. One way to solve this monitoring problem could be a management system that monitors and evaluates the results of the work instead of the work process. This takes often the form of written target agreements, in which goals are negotiated between supervisors and subordinates, which then serve as an individual benchmark against which the respective output is evaluated and financially rewarded. In the literature, this kind of leadership is often referred to as Management by Objectives (MBO).

At the moment I am working with my co-authors, Patrick Kampkötter and Susannes Steffes, on a research project investigating whether firms using MBO are more likely to use flexible work schemes. For the research projects on working from home schemes, we use the Linked Personnel Panel (LPP), which is representative for German private-sector establishments with more than 50 employees. Preliminary results show that establishments that use a combination of target agreements and variable pay are more likely to offer work-from-home schemes. So it seems to be easier for firms to offer work flexibility when monitoring results instead of the work process. Hence, introducing MBO could be a way to solve the monitoring problem and facilitate flexible work. Our data suggests that there is unmet potential for work flexibility. Around one-third of white-collar workers would like to work from home but are not able to, mainly because their supervisors prefer them to be present at the workplace.

The second aspect that I find very interesting takes rather a psychological perspective. Here, I am particularly interested in how individuals are affected by the increasing blurring between work and private life that comes with work flexibility. On one hand, this flexibility to switch more easily between work and private life can facilitate to balance private and work demands. On the other hand, the psychological literature suggests that blurring of private and work roles might be stressful—at least to some individuals. This is supported in the LPP data, which shows that around two-thirds of white-collar workers in Germany do not want to work from home. The major reason for this is that they want to keep work and private life separated. For that reason firms should implement work flexibility only on a voluntary basis, allowing workers to choose whether they want to make use of it.

1MFWF: What led to the creation of the “Workshop on Flexible Work in the Digital Age”? What made this the right time and ZEW the right venue for the workshop?

Daniel: The workshop is part of a joint research project among three Leibniz Institutes, IfADo, IWM and ZEW. This interdisciplinary team comprising psychologists, economists and business scholars investigates chances and challenges of work flexibility. These three institutes fit nicely together for this research project.

New digital technologies are the driver behind work flexibility, and ZEW hosts a whole research department focusing on the economic role of information and communication technologies (ICT), which is unique in Germany. This is complemented by the labor department, including two research teams, one focusing on the impact of technological change on the labor market, the other focusing on human resource management. The psychologists at IfADo investigate safety at the workplace, whereas the psychologists at IWM are interested in cognitive effects of different working environments. Finally, Mannheim University has work psychologists with whom we plan to cooperate in the future more closely. So Mannheim in general, and the ZEW more specifically, within the Leibniz research network, is an ideal place to meet and discuss with researchers interested in work flexibility.

1MFWF: This conference approached the issues of flexibility from the perspective of several different disciplines, including economics, management, occupational medicine, psychology, and sociology. Why did you decide to cast such a wide net, and how did that influence the tone of the workshop?

Daniel: The workshop is part of an interdisciplinary research project that brings together researchers from economics, business studies, and psychology to investigate the opportunities and risks that come with work flexibility. For the workshop, we wanted to also open up to other disciplines, such as sociology and computer science.

Different scientific disciplines ask different questions, which, in turn, lead also to different methods. Psychologists are, for example, more interested in finding out through which channels work-related smartphone usage affects worker wellbeing. Economists, in contrast, are more interested in whether they are positively or negatively affected and put more emphasis on representative data sources that make it easier to generalize findings.

Within this project, I have learned a lot from psychologists about channels through which workers’ wellbeing might be affected by work flexibility: Recovery from work depends crucially on the capability to mentally detach from work. Therefore, even small work-related interruptions of leisure time, for example through phone calls, might have a huge effect on the wellbeing of workers due to reduced recovery. This is the very reason why it can be helpful to refrain from checking work emails regularly on weekends.

Hopefully, the psychologists have also learnt something from us economists.

1MFWF: Several conference sessions focused on the gender gap and wage gap. What were some of the most interesting or unexpected perspectives shared during those sessions?

Daniel: In general the studies on gender gaps presented at the workshop found that flexibility helps to reduce gender differences in the labor market. A research project by my colleagues Melanie Arntz, Sarra Ben Yahmed, and Francesco Berlingieri shows that working from home allows women to increase overtime hours and thereby reduce the gap in working hours between men and women in Germany. This should reduce the gender pay gap, because differences in working hours are, according to previous research, one major obstacle to equal pay. But according to their findings, this does not translate into reduced pay gaps in terms of hourly or monthly wages. The authors put two potential explanations forward. First, whether a man or a woman works from home might be perceived differently by firms. Firms might assume that women exert lower work effort than men when working from home because of private responsibilities. Alternatively, working from home could be an amenity for females, whereas males have to be compensated for their working hours at home. Further research is needed to better understand the impact of work flexibility on gender pay gaps.

1MFWF: The influence of technology on workplace flexibility was also a prominent topic of discussion. According to those who attended the conference, how have recent tech trends affected flex work, and what do they expect the future to hold?

Daniel: Technological trends such as the spread of smartphones, laptop computers, and mobile internet facilitate work flexibility. Surprisingly, we do not see an increase in the number of workers who occasionally work from home in Germany between 2013 and 2015 in the LPP data. But we do see an increase in work-related communication (phone calls and email) outside regular working hours. So, there seems to be more work outside the usual work context, which can be seen as a form of flexibility. We are curious about the 2017 follow-up survey that is in the field right now. Probably in autumn we will know more about the latest trends in work flexibility for Germany.

photo credit: Daniel Arnold