Unpredictable Work Hours Are Stressing Too Many People Out
In the modern workforce, control over your time is a valuable form of currency: for many, it’s an equal aspiration to getting rich (if it’s any proof ,“control your time” has almost 200,000,000 more mentions on Google than “make more money”). And yet as jobs become ever more dependent on online connectivity and technology, more of us are losing control over our time.
Workers at the top and bottom of the economic spectrum feel the loss of control dearly, and technology is often the culprit. Whether it’s a buzzing smartphone or software that tracks our whereabouts, the more hard to predict our schedules become, the less real flexibility many of us have.
Researchers, company executives, and advocates fought for decades to increase workplace flexibility. I remember my own initial experience of it: my Blackberry and VPN didn’t yet feel like a yoke, but rather a truly empowering instrument that allowed me freedom to work on my terms. Now, the fight for flexibility feels like a red herring, masking the huge erosion of agency over our own time, whether at work or not. What if it’s not about flex, but about helping managers and workers set good boundaries, so that we all feel a reasonable level of control over our lives? What if the problem isn’t one of flexibility, but variability?
Today, workplace flexibility is the goal for many firms and its implementation is increasing across the board. But we can no longer kid ourselves that increased “flexibility” is enough to cope with increasing work variability. Here are two powerful examples, from opposite ends of the income spectrum.
Retail workers are often forced to work hours that may seem flexible but in truth are just highly variable. Software that helps retailers optimize staffing against levels of store traffic creates chaos for working families, as New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor so vividly illustrated in a recent story featuring days in the life of a Starbucks barista, Jannette Navarro. Kantor writes, “in interviews with current and recent workers at 17 Starbucks outlets around the country, only two said they received a week’s notice of their hours; some got as little as one day.”
From a corporate perspective, scheduling software takes a time-consuming task away from store supervisors and does it much more efficiently. Using analytics to schedule workers on an as-needed basis saves labor costs and also ensures adequate staffing during peak periods. But are the upsides enough to compensate for the havoc wreaked on workers’ lives? Starbucks quickly promised to revise its scheduling practices so that work hours must be posted at least one week in advance.
While the problem is vastly more challenging for those at the bottom of the economic ladder, those who work in well-paid, white collar jobs also feel the effects of variability. Employees at Boston Consulting Group, one of the most elite workplaces there is, suffered the stress created by lack of control over their work hours. Deborah Lovich, a BCG Partner who engaged Harvard Business School Professor Leslie Perlow, writes: “The big problem wasn’t so much the long hours and incessant travel. Our consultants expected that when they joined BCG. Rather, Perlow discovered, it was the complete lack of predictability or control they had over their daily lives.”
“When consultants woke up in the morning, they literally had no idea how many hours they would be putting in that day. When Perlow asked them in the morning how long they expected to work that day, they underestimated by up to 30 percent. For data-driven people like us, those numbers really hit us.” Lovich worked with Perlow to offer BCG employees predictable time off. Simple interventions, such giving team members more control over how they define their schedule, raised productivity and intent to stay with the company.
Whether we are low-paid hourly workers or highly-salaried professionals, we are witnessing a shift: What was originally a case for greater flexibility has morphed into a need to control increasing variability.
In the end, it’s control over your day that empowers people and gives satisfaction at work. We all must have control over our time in order to function and create solid families and normal lives. Jannette Navarro’s lack of control over her shift schedule helped cripple any sense of routine for her son, and made basic steps towards gaining a leg up, such as getting a driver’s license or finish her education, impossible. Leslie Perlow’s work with consultant teams found lack of control over one’s schedule drives dissatisfaction and turnover.
Those who have been influential in demanding workplaces with greater flexibility need to think holistically about what happens next. Leaders in work redesign not only have to make work more flexible, but make work hours more predictable.
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