Lately, evidence has been piling up that the traditional, five-day, 40-hour workweek is outdated: A recent survey found that most US employees work outside “normal” 9-to-5 working hours—often meaning a longer effective workday or workweek—while other research suggests that older workers are more productive if they work fewer than 40 hours a week. Employees are increasingly putting a premium on flexibility and work-life balance, as our research at CEB bears out: Our latest preferences research (which CEB Total Rewards Leadership Council members can read here) indicates that increased emphasis on work-life benefits is almost as important to employees as a pay raise, while our Global Talent Monitor finds that these benefits are the most effective driver of employee attraction in several major global markets.
A new paper from Harvard and Princeton researchers complicates this narrative somewhat. Workplace Insight’s Mark Eltringham goes over the recent study, published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, which concludes that “the average American worker is indifferent to flexible working hours and instead prefers a set 40-hour workweek”:
According to the study, most workers aren’t willing to take even a small pay cut to determine their own working hours. However, if given the option to work from home, many workers — especially women — would take an 8 percent wage cut to do so. The findings … also show that workers consistently dislike irregular work schedules set by employers on short notice. They would even give up one-fifth of their salary to avoid working evenings or weekends. Nearly half of jobseekers would not take an irregular-schedule job even if it paid a quarter more than a 9 to 5 job. This is true even of workers who currently have irregular work schedules.
“Our findings show that flexible scheduling is not valued by many workers in the sense that they prefer a little extra income rather than a more flexible workplace. However, we find that for a relatively small number of workers, flexible schedules are really important,” said co-lead author Alexandre Mas, professor of economics and public affairs in Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
“Most workers want to work Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. They don’t value flexible scheduling, and they really dislike working evenings and weekends. Nevertheless, many jobs require workers to work nonstandard hours,” said paper co-author Amanda Pallais, the Paul Sack Associate Professor of Political Economy and Social Studies at Harvard. “Women and women with young children find working irregular schedules particularly costly. Yet, many women with young children are in jobs with irregular schedules.”
This contrasts with another recent survey of employees in the UK, around 90 percent whom said that given the choice between two similar jobs, they would choose the one with more flexible working options. A subset of workers in this study said they would take a small pay cut to set their own schedules, but most preferred “regular” hours.
Does this mean everything we thought we knew about employees’ desire for flexibility is wrong? Not necessarily: These findings are entirely compatible with rising demand for work-life balance, and could reflect a backlash against the “always-on” mentality that flexible work sometimes engenders. The key takeaway seems to be that employees value their evenings and weekends, and given the choice, would prefer to have that time to themselves. The findings also resonate with the growing focus on “secure scheduling“—regular, predictable schedules that hourly employees can count on and factor into their budgets—in labor activism.
The other intriguing finding here is that so many employees, and particularly women, would take a pay cut for the option of working from home. A survey published in August (caveat: by a vendor of flexible work solutions) found that most workers would prefer to work from home if they could and felt that they would be more productive if they did so. Another recent study from China found that call center employed who worked from home were more productive and less likely to quit than those who went into the office.