Dr. Heejung Chung is a labor market and welfare state researcher and reader (full professor) in sociology and social policy at the School of Social Policy, Sociology and Social Research, University of Kent, United Kingdom. Her research interest lies in examining different labor market patterns and outcomes across European welfare states, with a primary focus on flexibility at work, work-life balance, and job and employment insecurity. Her work has been published in several journals, and she was recently awarded the Economic and Social Research Council Future Leader’s Award to carry out research on flexible working. She is also principal investigator for the Work Autonomy, Flexibility and Work-Life Balance Project, a research project funded by the UK Economic and Social Research Council that aims to examine how companies provide workers with control over where and when they work, and how that control can be used to benefit workers instead of blurring the boundaries between work and family life. Heejung is the mother of a 4-year-old, which contributes to her interest in the interplay of work and family.

1MFWF: What life experiences led to your personal interest in work flexibility and work-life balance?

Heejung: I was born in Korea, raised in Austin, Texas, and then again back in Seoul, Korea. I proceeded to live in Scotland, the Netherlands, and Germany, and I am currently based in England. I’ve always been fascinated by the different attitudes people and society have towards work. This, in a way, explains different modes of capitalism in these different countries. In the U.S. and Korea, it was/is an all-consuming aspect of your life, where your life centers around work, and there is very little balance between work and other aspects of your life. On the other hand, in the Netherlands, there was much more balance between work and not just family, but also leisure, etc.

The flexibility aspect came first as a question regarding labor market insecurity, and precarious employment—but later on while doing a project for the European Foundation, I started conceptualizing flexibility that can be for employers or employees, which resulted in my interest in schedule control and other forms of employee-friendly flexibility. That was essentially the topic of my PhD, which also examines the cross-national differences in the extent to which these types of flexible working patterns exists.

1MFWF: You recently completed two days of conferences related to flex work. What were your primary goals for those conferences, and why was now the right time to bring people together for these discussions? Do you feel the meetings met your goals?

Heejung: The two-day event was the final dissemination conference of the Work Autonomy & Flexibility project. The first day was an academic conference where top academics working in the field of flexible working gave papers on the following themes:

  • Flexible working and gender equality–namely how flexible working can enhance gender equality, or traditionalize gender roles.
  • Flexible working and unintended consequences (namely intensification of work).
  • Flexible working and the importance of workplace culture, focusing on the problematic nature of the “ideal worker culture” that still prevails in most of our societies.

The policy conference on the second day brought together academics and policy makers, policy stakeholders (for example, the Trade Union Congress, the European Trade Union Congress, the International Labor Organization, Charter Management Institute), and NGOs (such as UK-based Working Families, Workingmums, EU-based Families Europe) interested in flexible working to discuss the future of flex and its key policy issues at hand. That day, the final report of the WAF project was presented and discussed, alongside roundtables discussing some of the key issues on flexible working, namely:

  • How to make flexible working work for both workers and companies.
  • How to enable better access to flexible working for all workers.
  • How we can understand flexible working as a part of a larger change into the “Future of Work.”

I do believe that it met its most important goal: to have a frank discussion on flexible working with a wider audience of not just academics or just policy makers, which is unfortunately not yet common. It provided a very good platform where some key issues being discussed in each of these different arenas were brought together. Further, it provided some key agendas as to what needs to be done next in developing “good flexible working practices.”

1MFWF: What is the most important take-home message from those two days?

Heejung: Flexible working is becoming more of a norm, rather than the exception. However, flexible working alone cannot be a panacea for a wide range of issues, such as work-life balance and workers’ well being. It needs to be examined under the current work and social-economic context, which hugely influences the outcomes of flexibility and the blurring of the boundaries between work and family/other spheres of life. Thus we need to ensure that “good flexible working practices” are developed!

1MFWF: Your most recent research shows that flexitime and teleworking sometimes do not reduce work-family conflict or promote a family-friendly work environment. Why is this the case, and how frequently do these problems seem to arise?

Heejung: The outcome of flexible working hugely depends on the context in which it is being used. For example, flexibility in the boundaries between work and family can actually lead to an expansion, rather than the contraction, of work. In one of the papers I’ve published recently in the European Sociological Review (ESR), which your blog has also covered, I show how flexible working—in this case, having control over your schedule—increases workers’ overtime hours. This is also found in another work-in-progress paper of the project, and a paper presented during the WAF academic conference. Jennifer Glass and Mary Noonan found similar effects in the U.S. for teleworking. Because long working hours/overtime hours lead to higher work-family conflict, this can explain why flexible working does not always lead to better work-life balance.

In a similar but more positive vein, another reason why flexible working may not always lead to better work-family balance is because it increases work capacity of mothers after childbirth. This is the key finding of my paper published in Human Relations. In other words, those who cannot work flexibly may drop out of the labor market or reduce their hours/move to part-time after childbirth. While flexible working can allow women to maintain their labor market positions, because they can meet both work and family demands, it means more conflict.

Again talking about contexts, our current social context where women are mainly responsible for care of children and household tasks, and men are expected to be the main breadwinners, flexible working can work to traditionalize gender roles. In our ESR paper, we found that men are more likely to expand their overtime hours compared to women, most likely because women are more limited in the extent to which they can expand paid work due to their responsibilities outside of work. In another paper, presented during the first day of the WAF conference, Jaesung Kim explained how mothers are more likely to expand their childcare involvement through flexible working. In other words, flexible working may enforce the traditional division of labor between men and women.

Finally, the most important context that hinders not only the take-up of flexible working arrangements, but also can explain why it may lead to not-so-great outcomes, is the “ideal worker culture” that still prevails in most of our societies and the flexibility stigma that follows. In other words, because our societies still believe that workers should prioritize work and do not have any other responsibilities outside of work, much of the good that benefits from flexible working may not be realized.

1MFWF: What should businesses and/or governments do to overcome some of these challenges related to flexibility and work-life balance?

Heejung: There are two things. One is to ensure that flexible working arrangements are provided, to all workers and not only the few, more as a right, alongside changing our work cultures to allow for the better use of flexible working arrangements. To do this they should implement policies that:

  • Ensure a “right to flexible work” rather than the “right to request flexible work.”
  • Ensure that workers are protected, regardless of their flexible working status.
  • Encourage senior managers to serve as role models in terms of using and promoting flex work, focusing on how productive workers are flexible workers.
  • Increase fathers’ take-up of flexible working for family-friendly purposes.
  • Make sure that work-life balance is at the core of discussions between managers and employees, tackling the “ideal worker culture” head-on. We need to change the image of the “ideal worker” from that of someone who only works, and only thinks of work, to that of someone who is able to manage both work and other aspects of life, enabling a more productive and happier society overall.

Learn more from Hejjung about her work:

photo credit: Heejung Chung