The three-stage blueprint for “crafting” a flexible career

Working it out.
Working it out.
Image: Reuters/Loriene Perera
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In theory, flexibility is firmly on the agenda for companies that want employees to thrive. Work that can bend can help people avoid burnout and navigate longer, more varied career paths. It’s also a path to fairer workplaces: if satisfying careers can accommodate other responsibilities, like caregiving, fewer people (especially women) will be forced out of them.

But in practice, negotiating flexibility—still a new concept in many workplaces—can be scary. Employees, fearing their dedication will be questioned, can view even asking about reduced or different hours as too dangerous to countenance. The response of managers can be key, but they too are under pressure: judged by their team’s collective work, supervisors might not feel incentivized to help.

A new study on flexible working from the Krannert School of Management at Purdue University in Indiana suggests a way forward. The researchers spent two years conducting detailed interviews with employees on flexible schedules, managers with flexible reports, HR officers, and executives, concluding that going part-time needn’t be a career dead end—or a lonely process. They suggest a three-step blueprint for “crafting” a good flexible career that’s based on deep collaboration between employees, managers, and their companies.

How reducing work works

The study, published in the Journal of Vocational Behavior in June, focused on one type of flexibility: “reduced-load” (RL) work, defined as any full-time job “redesigned to reduce the hours and the workload while taking a pay cut,” for example, moving to a four-day week from five days with a cut to 80% of full-time salary. (The findings are still useful when considering the other types of flexibility with which firms and individuals are experimenting, including four day weeks with no pay cut, employees setting their own hours, or compressed weeks in which people work longer days, but fewer of them.)

The researchers conducted 86 detailed interviews with employees at 20 companies in North America, all of which were “early adopters” of flexible working. They concluded that for flexibility to work, the onus shouldn’t just be on the individual to work out every detail of their journey. Successful arrangements also need to include a commensurate cut to the amount of work expected of the employee. If not, they risk ending up in a situation of working full-time hours for part-time pay.

For a firm to support flexibility, it needs to acknowledge that its staff are complex human beings with diverse lives, says Dr Ellen Ernst Kossek, the study’s lead author. A strong cultural focus on work fails to acknowledge that people are often driven by much more than career, she says, but it’s a “misconception” that people for whom family or other interests are important aren’t dedicated to their jobs. They can be “highly work-centric,” while still being “centric in other identities, whether it’s family life or starting out a side gig.”

Women entering the workforce in ever-greater numbers has created increasing tension between the idea of a job as the main focus of one’s life, and life as we actually experience it, Kossek suggests. “There are a lot of what I would call dual-centric people. And we haven’t structured jobs for a lot of people to have more than one primary identity,” she says.

Employers have some legitimate fears. Managers in the study were worried that they would ultimately be held responsible for any drop in productivity resulting from flexible working, and that any overspill of work would fall to them, or to other full-time team members. Some of these reservations need to be addressed through creative, collaborative thinking, says Kossek.

The study also threw up some benefits for firms that ran parallel to having a potentially happier and more representative workforce. When a company needed to downsize, having RL staff decreased the imperative to cut headcount, because some of its employees were already cheaper than full-timers. Interviewees also talked about retaining talented individuals who might otherwise have been forced out of the workforce, including women and those past retirement age.

Three stages

How should managers, their reports, and companies think about introducing more flexible schedules? The researchers map out the three stages that led to the most success at the companies they talked to:

Stage 1: Exploration

Good job “scoping,” Kossek says, is crucial to the success of a flexible schedule—neglecting this step is often the reason for attempts at flexibility failing.

According to the study, all parties need to be open to mutual dialogue, and to agree that the job in question could be “redesigned” to incorporate more flexibility. On this point, the researchers noted that not all jobs are equally suitable for a reduction in hours. Jobs with predictable, quantifiable outcomes are easier to mold than those which require hard external deadlines or lots of daily face-to-face time, for example. In many cases, though, redesign isn’t impossible, especially when other structures, like splitting the work of one full-time postion between two part-time employees, is considered.

The researchers also recommend that everyone work collaboratively on identifying the “tactics” by which flexibility is introduced. For example, managers might need to find creative ways to tweak a person’s responsibilities, or parcel out work elsewhere, without unfairly loading other team members. This stage could also include discussion of deadlines, measures of success, and contingency measures for when things don’t go according to plan. The study also notes that, when apportioning budgets, managers need flexibility too. Having part-timers on their teams worked best when they could express work in terms of “full-time equivalent” hours, rather than total headcount.

Stage 2: Implementation

The researchers identified three main responsibilities which could be shared between employees and employers at this stage.

First, both parties needed to help prevent overwork, for example by anticipating where hitches might happen, and planning for busy times in advance. Second, employees with reduced hours needed to work on managing boundaries, and managers on respecting them. Thirdly, good communication was crucial “to make the work redesign tactics work,” they wrote.

It’s not always easy. “I think companies hear about flexibility but don’t take the time, sometimes, to really do trial-and-error and figure out how to implement it well,” Kossek says. “They run into their first roadblock and run away.” Some of this tendency to draw back at the first sign of trouble comes from a misconception about flexible workers, she suggests. Companies “think they’re getting a raw deal” by allowing some employees to work fewer hours, when in fact her research suggests that “part-time workers work more intensively.”

Stage 3: Embedding

Though the researchers went looking for reduced-load working regardless of gender, 95% of the employees they found and interviewed were women. One of the big problems with part-time careers can be shown by looking at earnings: Salary trajectories for men and women are similar in the early part of their careers, but after women have kids they tend to get paid less, in large part because they tend to work fewer hours.

Such career costs can be mitigated, the researchers suggest, with a few tweaks to how flexibility is managed and perceived. Firstly, everyone involved needs to troubleshoot problems as they arise, rather than blaming difficulties on an employee’s schedule. Second, employers should champion flexibility more generally (for example, for fathers as well as mothers), to avoid stigma and show true support.

Finally, companies need to think about all the metrics associated with performance other than pay—for example other reward or incentive schemes, appraisals, and goal-setting—to make sure people on reduced hours aren’t being marginalized. Ideally, the researchers noted, the firm would proactively record data and make its findings available to help with future flexibility design.

For anyone who still isn’t sure it’s possible to work flexibly, or worries about the consequences for their team, the study includes some encouraging examples. At one company, a high-performing female tax director working half-time won her firm’s “employee of the year” award—and a trip around the world during which she adopted her first child—for discovering an arcane tax law that saved the company millions of dollars. It’s an example, the researchers wrote, of how being flexible for a “high talent, hard-working employee, and giving her a workload facilitating her ability to be creative and focus, benefited both employer and employee.”