Flexible work hours may make for happier workers, but they're not for everyone

At the Hamilton, Ont.-based company Mabel's Labels, employees can start work when they want and leave when they want. It’s an approach that more and more businesses have adopted and one the federal government is considering. But while there is strong evidence flexible work hours lead to better job satisfaction and productivity, they aren’t necessarily the right choice for everyone.

Flexible work arrangements get employees working smarter and more productively but don't suit all jobs

The flexible work hour philosophy, also known as ROWE (Results Only Work Environment), has been embraced by a growing number of companies and even some governments. The Liberals said they are considering allowing flex work in federally regulated sectors such as transportation and telecommunications. (l i g h t p o e t/Shutterstock)

At the Hamilton, Ont.-based company Mabel's Labels, employees can start work when they want and leave when they want. 

In fact, if they decide to work from home or take a three-hour chunk of the day and spend it on personal activities, they can do that, too. There's only one catch: get your work done, or else. 

"You've got to meet your goals," said Julie Cole, a co-founder of the company, which employs 40 people. "And people say, 'Well, if people aren't meeting their goals, will you make them come to the office?' And my answer to that would be no. If they don't meet their goals, they get fired."

It's all part of the flexible work hour philosophy, also known as ROWE (Results Only Work Environment), that Mabel's Labels and many other companies have embraced.

It's also an idea that the federal government recently announced it might implement for federally regulated workers in sectors such as banking, telecommunications, broadcasting and transportation. The government said it will be holding consultations on the issue in the coming weeks.

'Why not extend this to our staff'

The idea is based on giving employees more flexibility to enable a better work/life balance and help them work around child care and other family issues or cultural practices.

'Nobody is watching the clock. … What's valued is their output.- Julie Cole, co-founder, Mabel's Labels

"When I started this company with two other women, we found that we were working at non-traditional times and non-traditional places," Cole said. "So, why are we assuming that everyone works their best and most productive way sitting at a desk in a cubicle from 9 to 5. So we just thought, why not extend this to our staff.

"The thing I love most is that nobody is watching what other people are up to. Nobody is watching the clock. Nobody is judging people by what time they arrive at work, what time they leave work, because that's not valued. What's valued is their output."

Flexible work hours are also a way for smaller to mid-size companies to compete against large corporations for quality workers, said Alison Konrad, a professor of organizational behaviour at Western University's Ivey School of Business on London, Ont.

Julie Cole, co-founder of Mabel's Labels, says that flexible work hours have made workers at her company happier and more productive. 'Nobody is judging people by what time they arrive at work, what time they leave work, because that's not valued. What's valued is their output.' (Mabel's Labels)

Konrad said evidence shows that workers with flexible work hours are more satisfied with their job and their employer and have a stronger sense of autonomy.

"And that is a very important predictor for well-being in the workplace," she said.

While a system like this might seem ripe for abuse, Konrad said the data shows that given that freedom, people will not take advantage of it.

"Mostly, they don't abuse. Mostly, they find ways to work smarter, and they're more productive," said Konrad.

When employees are happier because work hours fit in with their lives, they will feel more valued, will be more energetic and will want to contribute more, said human resources consultant Antoinette Blunt.

Many businesses and even some governments have bought into that argument.

In 2014, Britain introduced a law allowing all workers to request flexible work hours. Employers aren't legally required to grant the request but must consider it and explain to the employee if they decide to reject the application.

But the flex-work system isn't necessarily right for every employer, and it would be difficult for some employees to work flexible hours because of the nature of their jobs.

May not be practical for some

For example, flexible work hours may not be practical for a business with a customer service area where a human being is expected to be available to the public at certain hours of the day.

"You can't say to the person at the job, 'Well you can start at 7," said Blunt. "Similar to other jobs based on customer service when people are expected to meet with certain individuals at certain hours."

Employers should consider flexible work hours as long as they fit within the nature of their business and employees are not required to be present for customers or to collaborate in person with co-workers, Blunt said.

Yahoo president and CEO Marissa Mayer killed the company's policy of flexible work hours, suggesting it was having a negative impact on innovation and collaboration. (Eric Risberg/Associated Press)

However, there are other possible drawbacks, said Konrad, including the challenges of scheduling and co-ordinating meetings when people are working at scattered times.

Some major companies that had implemented flexible working arrangements, such as Best Buy and Yahoo Inc., have since reversed those policies, suggesting that collaboration and innovation had been suffering as a result. 

Feel more isolated

Research shows that some employees might also feel more isolated with flexible work hours or worried that they might miss something at the workplace that could have helped their career advancement, Konrad said.

An experimental study done at several accounting firms found employees who asked for flexible hours were deemed less promotable than those who didn't.

But Konrad and her colleague conducted their own field study, following 1,500 employees in Canada over a year, and compared those who had a flexible work accommodation to those who didn't. Their findings revealed that those with the more flexible work schedule were actually slightly more likely to be promoted.

"Over time, this all provides someone with an opportunity to show that, 'No, I'm not going to make problems. I'm going to manage myself. I'm going to show you how hardworking I can be without anyone looking over my shoulder. I'm going to accomplish my goals independently and autonomously.' And by demonstrating those qualities, a person shows they are actually ready for promotion," Konrad said. 


Mark Gollom

Senior Reporter

Mark Gollom is a Toronto-based reporter with CBC News. He covers Canadian and U.S. politics and current affairs.

With files from The Canadian Press


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