The Way We Work: Creating a More Flexible Life

by Jennifer Miller on September 6, 2011

in Business Management, Human Resources

Part Three of a Three-Part Series

The conclusion of this series on integrating our work and personal lives focuses on the changing nature of work—when we work, how we work, and how others around us deal with it.

Part One of the series was What is Work Life Integration? and Part Two was Work Team Leaders: A Key Ingredient for Successful Employee-Friendly Practices. I talked with Tracy Brower, Director of Performance Environments at Herman Miller for her perspective on this topic.


JM: Tracy, you’ve been researching flexible work scheduling as part of your dissertation for a Phd in Sociology. What have you uncovered?

TB: There have been several interesting trends that have emerged.

First, the companies I’m studying readily admit they don’t have flexible scheduling figured out for high-structure jobs (like production workers and call center employees). However, one factor that is important to employees regardless of the job they do:  control over their schedule. Employees seem to say, “If I have some measure of say in my work schedule, I will feel less stress.” A key component that helps people feel that control is if there is some consistency. For example, if an employee has a schedule that is non-standard (ie: Mon/Wed/Fri days days and Tues/Thurs nights) then it should remain that schedule from week to week.

Here’s another interesting development that’s occurring because of increased globalization: the perception of “shift work”. I talked with a company that has many locations inChina and India. When the company was in growth mode, they had knowledge workers with MBA’s working on all three shifts, and the workers were fine with that. Then, somewhere along the line, the MBAs working the third shift starting to balk at doing so. There was a stigma attached to working third shift. Managers were hearing the knowledge workers saying, “If I work third shift, my friends will think I work at a call center, so I don’t want to work on third shift.” There’s a perception that “white collar workers don’t work off-shift”.

There’s a second aspect to the issue of “shift work” and it’s this: our own notion of what “shift work” is will change because with globalization, the need to connect with our global partners and customers creates demand for our time at all hours of the day and night.

At this point, in highly developed countries, we tend to treat it [the need to work “off shift”] rather episodically. It’s not part of our normal work pattern. Because we need to connect with our global customers and partners, we will begin to create new work patterns.  One pattern is that we’ll end up clustering our work. For example, if I need to conduct a conference call at 5:00 AM to talk with a business partner in London, I’ll just keep working for several more hours after my call, even though my standard work shift starts at 8:00 AM.  That’s not my “normal” shift, but it’s what fits in the flow of my day. As the practice of “clustering” work becomes more accepted, I think our own notion of shift work will change as well and perhaps, by extension, the stigma of working “off shift” will go away. 

JM: And by extension: this flexibility and “clustering” will only work if your boss supports it. For example, if you do the call at 5:00 AM and just keep working until 8:00 AM and your boss says, “Hey, we work from 8 – 5, so I expect you to work until 5:00 PM” then it’s not worth it.

TB: Exactly. Here’s the thing about providing flexible work schedules: You’re not giving people a free ride. Usually flexibility comes with a lot of demands. It comes with a tradeoff.

One of the challenges in today’s world and the reconfiguration of our work life is that technology has accelerated the pace of everything. One of the phenomena that I’ve observed is something I call “fast information, slow people”—meaning: information can move so quickly and is so encompassing and yet humans have a hard time keeping up with it. Add human expectations: people expect responses really quickly and expect the information to move really quickly. The information/content can be created so quickly and as a human it is hard to keep up.

JM: Is it that we expect humans to process information nearly as fast as our technology?

TB: It’s not just processing it (that’s transactional); humans are good at processing information.  It’s the synthesis. Data is coming in from all different places and we need to put it together and figure out the meaning. Computers can process really well, but it’s uniquely human to synthesize. It’s not that we can’t do it [given enough time]; it’s [that given time pressures] the acting on it that can be overwhelming. It’s not that the processing is mentally difficult, but there are so many things that need to be done.

JM: That concludes our discussion of integrating our personal and professional lives, courtesy of Tracy Brower. Tracy, thanks so much for your time.

TB: My pleasure.

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