Autonomy in flexibilized working time schemes? Factors that inhibit autonomy and where it succeeds

Yvonne Lott, of the Wirtschafts- und Sozialwissenschaftlichen Institut (WSI) in Germany, questions whether working time flexibility can really deliver employee autonomy. 

Flexibility in working time makes it possible to reconcile work with the affairs of private life. Whether this is caring for children or elderly parents, or pursuing a qualification alongside work – flexible working times give employees freedom to organize their time. In particular when employees can themselves determine how to organize their working time, their autonomy at work can seem unlimited. Self-determination of work schedules promises control over one’s own working time and thus autonomy over one’s time in general. Employees with such working times should, then, have relatively stress-free (work) lives. Right? I am skeptical.

I used data from the Socio-Economic Panel to examine more closely the link between working time arrangements and overtime hours. Similar to the situation in Great Britain, working times in Germany are flexibilized primarily in the interest of employers. The needs and constraints of employees in terms of time are largely neglected. My research shows that employees with autonomy over working time are at greater risk to work longer and more intensively. Compared to their colleagues with fixed working times, employees with working time autonomy work an average of two hours more per week. I suggest that this phenomenon can be explained by the “autonomy-control paradox”.

A significant driver in this dynamic is the norm of the ideal employee. The ideal employee is one who works full-time, has no obligations outside of work and whose time is available without restriction to the company. Line managers and colleagues often convey these expectations to employees, who in turn adopt them themselves. The norm of the ideal worker thus represents a hidden control exerted by the company over employees, with the result that they are autonomous only to a limited degree.

The autonomy-control paradox does not, however, apply to all employees in equal measure. Data show that men tend to extend their working hours more than women when time limits are not in place. This difference can be explained by the unequal distribution of unpaid work between men and women that is found in almost all countries. As in the past, women continue to perform the majority of work involving household chores, childcare and looking after ailing or aging family members. These tasks set limits to the time that can be devoted to paid work. Women thus have less ability to extend their working time. Men, by contrast, often have a female partner backing them up, so it is easier for them to stay later at work. Moreover, men are expected to invest the greater part of their time and energy in paid work. Whereas it is accepted for women to put private concerns before paid work, it is often frowned upon when men take longer periods of leave or work part-time.

For these reasons, women are also much more often employed on a part-time basis compared to men. According to OECD Labour Force Statistics, 37.8 percent of working women in Germany were employed part-time in 2012. In Great Britain the rate is even higher, at 39 percent. In general, employees reduce their working time to part-time schedules in order to devote more time to obligations or interests in other areas of life. As a consequence, they are de facto no longer capable of being ideal workers and are less subject to the high expectations that full-time employees feel in the work place. Part-time employees with working time autonomy are thus at lower risk to work longer hours, as opposed to full-time employees, who must embody the norm of the ideal worker. This applies above all to men, but also to women who work full-time despite their familial responsibilities and obligations.

Whether working men and women with working time autonomy truly enjoy freedom with regard to organizing their work schedules also depends on other factors of work organization. I used the 2010 European Working Conditions Survey to examine the work-life balance of employees with various types of working time arrangements. I found that financial rewards for performance in the form of bonuses constrain autonomy over one’s time, and that employees have a lower level of work-life balance when they have control over their own working times and also receive bonus payments.

This data also demonstrated how employee autonomy varies between countries. In Great Britain and Germany, flexibility in working times tends to have a detrimental effect on the work-life balance of employees. Especially in Great Britain, with its liberal labor market policies and weak social partnership mechanisms, there is a case to be made for fixed working times as a means of protecting employees against otherwise potentially unfettered demands on their time by employers. The situation is different in the Netherlands and Sweden. Dutch and Swedish employees are able to maintain a good level of work-life balance with working time autonomy. In both countries employee interests are taken into account in flexibilized working times. Moreover, in the Netherlands in particular, men more often have true autonomy when they can organize their own work schedules than in Germany and Great Britain. Whereas German and British labor market and family-related social policies encourage men to work full-time, in the Netherlands it is more commonly accepted for both women and men to work part-time. This less restrictive full-time norm supports true autonomy over one’s working time.

My research shows that it is not only social and labor market policies, but also the ways in which work is organized within companies that can influence the effectiveness of employee control over working time. Therefore, trade unions and co-determination bodies have the possibility and the responsibility to shape the flexibilization of working times in favor of employees’ interests. I call for work to be organized in a way that allows the benefits of employee control over working times to be realized. Trade unions and works councils should encourage company cultures where employees with control over their working time can truly use their time for activities outside of work. My chief criticism is aimed at the norm of the ideal worker: “Of central importance for future working time policies is the dismantling of the current full-time norm and the establishment of a new ‘normality’ in working time that truly corresponds to the time constraints and needs of both male and female employees.”

Listing image based on a photo by Gareth (Creative Commons by-nc 2.0).

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