Flexible working: a study of two extremes

The UK offers increasing flexibility in the workplace. Employers are becoming more aware of the benefits of flexibility, and government is legislating in this area. Yet there are huge international differences in the level of flexibility offered to employees and the legislation mandating it. Heather Greig-Smith considers two different approaches to flexible working and their resulting cultures: the United States and Sweden.

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National flags of US and SwedenUnited States

Traditionally, the US has not promoted flexible working at a national level. The land of opportunity is characterised by a long hours culture and few holidays. Recent headlines may report enforced expansion of part-time work, but as a way of avoiding healthcare rather than reaping the benefits of flexibility.

In 1990 the US ranked sixth out of 22 OECD countries when it came to women’s workforce participation. Levels of female workforce participation in the US have risen since then, from 74% to 75% in 2010, but other countries increased their levels more quickly, relegating it to 17th place.

Cornell University academics Francine Blau and Lawrence Kahn believe this is partly because other countries have expanded ‘family-friendly’ flexible policies including parental leave and part-time work entitlements, leaving the US behind.

Despite this, there are signs that the benefits of flexibility are being recognised. The 2014 National Study of Employers, conducted by the Families and Work Institute (FWI) and the Society for Human Resource Management, found that flexibility for full-time employees is growing.

Bosses are more frequently giving workers control over hours, location, breaks and time off during the working day. Options for remote working increased to 67% from 50% in 2008 when the study was previously conducted. This is great news for Americans seeking to balance their careers with other responsibilities and interests.

However, on the flipside, US employers have reduced their provision of options that involve employees spending significant amounts of time away from full-time work. Job sharing declined to 18% from 29% in 2008 and employers offering career breaks for personal and family responsibilities fell to 52% from 64%.

“The reduction in the proportion of employers offering such options means it will be harder for people facing such situations to get back into full-time work,” says Dr Kenneth Matos, FWI senior Director of Research. “It is something organisations should address because they can lose valuable talent when acute life events temporarily disrupt even the best employee’s ability to contribute at his or her full capacity.”

FWI President and Co-founder Ellen Galinsky says the traditional views that ‘presence equals productivity’ and ‘the ideal employee is full-time’ are mindsets that “must be addressed by employer to employer conversations and by sharing research that indicates what a talent loss we are incurring, especially as the American workforce ages”.

Much has been made of the fact that the US is one of only four countries not to offer paid maternity leave. The others are Swaziland, Lesotho and Papua New Guinea. Despite recent moves to legislate at State and city level, Americans do not have the wealth of family friendly legislation that other countries enjoy.

Sweden

In stark contrast to US flexibility, Sweden’s generous paternity policies have spawned the ‘latte papa’ phenomenon – fathers frequenting coffee shops while on parental leave.

According to the recent European Jobs and Skills report by the Institute for Public Policy Research, Sweden is one of the best countries in Europe at integrating diverse groups into the labour market. It has one of the highest female employment rates (82.5%) and a maternal employment rate of 79.6%. It also boasts an employment rate of 73% for older workers – with only a small gap between older men and women.

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“Many contributory factors explain high maternal and female employment rates in Sweden, including flexible working arrangements,” says IPPR research fellow Amna Silim. “Sweden is one of the few countries where the majority of workers have flexible working time schedules. Access to flexible working in Sweden helps families better reconcile paid work and caring responsibilities by increasing people’s choice over their working hours.”

According to Swedish official statistics, one in three employed women and one in ten employed men work part-time. The city of Gothenburg also recently announced plans to trial six-hour days in a bid to increase productivity.

However, while flexibility may mean more women are in work, it does not necessarily correlate with gender equality. Sociologist Dr Catherine Hakim has long argued that family-friendly employment policies have hampered Swedish women in their careers, with the pay gap rising and businesses sometimes reluctant to hire women.

Blau and Kahn agree that flexible policies appear to encourage part-time work and employment in lower level positions for women. Legislation enforcing flexibility could impact other trends. “US women are more likely than women in other countries to have full time jobs and to work as managers or professionals.”

This raises an interesting point about the knock-on effects of legislation to encourage flexibility. However, many of these perceived downsides are the result of businesses failing to engage properly and understand the benefits. Flexible working is not a women’s issue but a people issue. When the positive effects are grasped and offered to the whole workforce, flexibility can truly succeed, resulting in increased productivity, soaring engagement and business success.

Heather Greig-Smith is a journalist writing about flexible working issues.