Lonnie Golden is a Professor of Economics and Labor & Employment Relations at Penn State University, Abington College. He is also currently, Senior Research Analyst, Project for Middle Class Renewal, University of Illinois School of Labor and Employment Relations. His research analyzes trends in working hours, overtime, overwork, overemployment and underemployment, work schedule flexibility and variability, labor market and workplace flexibility, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), work-sharing, part-time work, time-use, work-family and health consequences, non-standard and contingent employment and employment policies. He is co-editor of two books, including Working Time, and has published research in leading journals such as Industrial Relations, Journal of Business Ethics, Monthly Labor Review, Cambridge Journal of Economics and Journal of Socio-Economics. He teaches courses on Labor Economics, Labor Markets and Work-Life Policies and Practices.

1MFWF: What sparked your commitment to and interest in flexibility in the workplace? What was your personal “aha” moment about the importance of work flex?

Lonnie: There hasn’t been one moment where a switch was flipped—more like a building snowball, an accumulation of interest and commitment to the issue of work and flexibility.

First, there must be at least some self-selectivity at work. I think a lot of people who migrate into, and stay in, academia, put a high value on autonomy, including and maybe particularly over their timing of working. I’ve always had a strong work ethic but also a desire to control my own timing of activities. I had held jobs where such control or autonomy was lacking, and eventually exited—and if there were some “compensating wage differential” for that inflexibility, I certainly didn’t experience it or it wasn’t sufficient!

Second, when picking an area of focus within economics, I found myself inevitably drawn to labor market issues, especially the determination of hours of work. Once earning tenure (let’s be honest!), with research with that was more macroeconomic, my curiosity evolved into the consequences, not just the causes, of work practices and policies.

Third, the Sloan Foundation Workplace, Work Force and Working Families program was funding innovative research that lured me into that area.

Finally, I also have a natural inclination to problem-solve and try to improve the world a bit, so like to many others, workplace flexibility seemed to me like a win-win-win that we could promote to help others achieve what we ourselves have and value. Trained as an economist, it seems irrational, and even irksome, that an opportunity to capture great benefit at little cost is not taken advantage of. So my commitment has been to provide scholarship that can help inform efforts to reform workplace practices and more general public policies, that would lead to better well-being outcomes for workers at little to no cost.

1MFWF: You are a professor of economics, yet one of your research areas is worker health and happiness. What does one have to do with the other?  

Lonnie: Obviously nothing at all—just kidding! In models that try to explain happiness of workers, their (self-evaluated) health level always comes out to be the biggest factor.

Of course, there is some endogeneity at work here (mutual causality or simultaneity—where both are related to some other factor). For example, people with “happier” predispositions might conduct healthier behaviors and/or be drawn to jobs and/or workplaces that help maintain their health or happiness.

That said, working conditions are still an independent contributing factor, to both happiness and worker health. This depends, of course, on the type of occupation and industry and, of course, on the flexibility the job, workplace or employer allows.  Keep in mind that employers benefit from their own type of “flexibility”—having employees work or be available when needed. This may lead to adverse well-being consequences, particularly when employees have no input and when hours of work get extended.

For one possible indicator regarding how much employers might value control over their employees’ time, Walmart just announced that, because of the updated regulations regarding “overtime” for low-salaried workers, they are immediately boosting pay of managers by $3.5k, so that it remains above the salary threshold beyond which the employee would be entitled legally to time and a half pay premium. So they seem to prefer to grant an 8% pay raise in order to retain the ability to have these employees work beyond 40 hours per week (or at least periodically when needed).

1MFWF: How much of a role does salary play in worker happiness?

Lonnie: Money can buy happiness, however:

  1. Only up to a certain salary level, after which it achieves diminishing returns, sometime near zero returns;
  2. One’s happiness with pay may be related not only to its level, but to reference points—the perceived effort to reward ratio, pay relative to others—horizontal (co-workers, peers) and vertical (superiors, subordinates), expectations regarding trajectory;
  3. Happiness can also come from other aspects of work, not only from its intrinsic value or “process utility,” but from more flexibility—the ability to accomplish one’s work at the time and location that fits around the employee’s other time demands, such as caregiving or schooling, with both expected and unexpected obligations. In addition, because good (poor) health can lead to greater (lower) happiness, a higher salary can also “buy” health improvements—via, for example, health care treatments, healthier food, exercise equipment or fitness club memberships, etc., and “outsourcing” of at least some disagreeable or taxing chores (with the exception of fun DIY).

I’m going to go out on a limb and say that the Walmart managers will be, on balance, happier, with their higher salaries. But if they wind up working even more “overtime” than they had been prior, with no more control over their workday or workweek, the consequent loss of non-work time and/or increased work stress and fatigue might leave them, on balance, not much better off. Which is not to say the reformed regulation is flawed, just that more flexibility—with, say, a legal right to refuse additional hours, or at least request no added hours (or comp time for the extra work), is needed to accompany the regulation, to protect those employees who lack the leverage to negotiate or impose such terms on their own.

1MFWF: Managers often seem to think of flexibility solely as a perk or a benefit for staffers who have already proven themselves as effective workers. Does your research show that’s the right approach?

Lonnie: Flexibility is, all at the same time, used as a reward, nonwage perk, and potential productivity-enhancing tool. It is natural to expect, given that most employees value at least some workplace flexibility (some still have a strong preference for fixed schedules, to maintain boundaries that better segment work from nonwork aspects of their life), that managers would use it as a reward in-lieu (or in addition) to raises or promotions.

It is also natural that, even when there is evidence that working from home (at least periodically) or a shifted daily schedule improves the employee’s performance or productivity, managers would allocate this selectively, or at least not grant it at the start of employment. For one, some managers might prefer a “probationary” period to determine if an employee would be more likely abuse more than use such flexibility (let’s say an 80-20 rule exists, where 20% is abused or 20% are abusers). Second, managers often work with “bounded rationality”—their own experience or projections might not conform to the aggregate, true population, so they hold back on flexibility—and some probably benefit (enjoy?) the experience of controlling others’ time and location, unfortunately.

Workplaces, workers, and managers are probably too heterogeneous to find one “right approach,” but they key is to being open and experimental for the approach that yields improvements in performance (or well-being without diminishing it), at very little cost of adjusting or administering.

1MFWF: In 1938, the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA) set the standard workweek at 40 hours. Have you found evidence in your research to suggest that “40” is a magic number?

Lonnie: Yes, 40 became codified at the end of the Depression, when the US wanted to encourage that the recovery created more jobs rather than return to the much longer workweeks prior. It was instituted at a time where work and workplaces were more regimented than they are now (although many workplaces remain as such), and the household structure was typically more breadwinner-homemaker model (although many still remain as such). It gave us a structure to be flexible around!

I think the evidence, including my own research, is that workers are happier—and maybe even work better and even work more hours—when the workweek length is closer to their preferences, for that week, or at that job.

Thus, I tend not to advocate any one-size fits all workweek, of 40, 35, 32, etc., but rather, workplace practices, employment laws, and bargaining leverage for employees to get fewer hours, or more hours, if that is what suits them in that particular week or foreseeable future.

So, our first task is to ensure that enlightened managers are informed and aware that matching (and adjusting) hours and schedules to employees’ preferences can yield much benefit with little if any harm or cost, for performance well-being. Our second task is to use research evidence to reshape and modify laws and regulations that would continue to provide a floor beneath which relatively less enlightened managers cannot sink, so that first, we try to, like technological innovation, use the promise of flexible working “for good rather than for evil,” for employees’ well being in the 21st century workplace.

photo credit: Lonnie Golden