How flexible working really works for dual-earner couples

This week celebrates the 3rd  annual National Work-Life Week in the UK, organised by WAF Project advisory board members Working Families.  It’s where both employers and workers are asked to think about their work-life balance and perhaps try to strike a balance, if only for a week.

Here, work-life researcher Laura Radcliffe on the real daily impact of flexible working for dual-earner couples striving to manage their work and family responsibilities. This post was also published at The Conversation.

Since June 30th this year all UK employees have been granted the right to request flexible working. This is clearly an important step in the battle to achieve some form of balance between our work and non-work lives. However, despite such increased awareness, research still shows that there are gaps between the idealised outcomes and realities of flexible working.

Key issues raised include the persistent gender stereotypes that exist, impacting upon who uses these policies. There is also stigmatisation of those employees who do choose to take advantage of the policies on offer, and evidence that flexible working can actually lead to an increased workload and the inability to ‘switch off’ from work.

This raises the question of how flexible working actually affects the balance between work and non-work life, and what it means in our day-to-day lives.

My recent research project sought to explore the impact of flexible working on the daily experiences of dual-earner couples by asking these couples to keep daily diaries over a month. I was interested in particular in how flexible working affected conflicts between work and family life.

Findings revealed that who has access to flexible working within the couples had an important impact on how daily work-family conflicts are experienced and resolved.

When women worked flexibly but their male partners did not, they actually experienced an increase in demands from the home. In these cases, women tended to assume the majority of duties related to home and family, while their male partners tended to be relinquished from such responsibilities and therefore shielded from the daily experiences of conflict between work and family demands.

Interestingly, it was evident that some of the women in the study were reluctant to share family responsibilities with their partners. For some women, maintaining a ‘maternal role’ remains an important part of how they view themselves, and they may feel a sense of failure if they do not retain full responsibility for all elements of this role. They may also simply be accustomed to carrying out these responsibilities, leaving less opportunity for their partner to be involved. Either way, this research shows that where women work more flexibly than their partner, flexible working can help perpetuate traditional gender divisions.

However, in cases where men had more flexible jobs than their female partners,  women remained highly involved in the resolution of all daily work-family conflicts, even when they were unable to resolve the conflict themselves directly.

Those men whose partners worked flexibly often failed to report incidents of work-family conflict, there were no conflicts recorded in a male’s diary that were not at least mentioned in their partner’s diary. This was still the case for those females whose partners had substantially greater flexibility at work than they themselves had access to.

While a woman’s flexible working arrangements might to some extent shield their partners from the experience of daily work-family conflicts; when men work flexibly this does not appear to have the same shielding effect for their female partners, but rather leads to greater equality and sharing of family responsibilities within these couples.

So what does this tell us about the impact of flexible working on the daily experiences of managing work and family responsibilities?

It suggests that when women have greater access to flexible working, gender stereotypes are more easily perpetuated in the home. In these cases women may be more inclined, and become accustomed to, taking on full responsibility for home related tasks, rather than allowing their partners to help. This can lead to an intensification of responsibilities for women and often an increase in work-family conflict.

This research also suggests that encouraging men to work flexibly has the potential to help couples progress towards greater equality in terms of managing family responsibilities on a daily basis.

Therefore, if flexible working and other “family friendly” policies are to have the desired effects, encouraging men to utilise these policies is key. There needs to be a conscious move away from maintaining the usual female focus in policy implementation. Human resource professionals and managers alike need to encourage all employees, regardless of gender, to achieve a genuine balance between their work and non-work responsibilities if flexibility is to be truly beneficial to employees and families.

Time will tell whether or not the new legislation introduced this June will have an impact on such equality. This certainly seems to be a step in the right direction but the question remains as to whether traditional societal and gender norms have been eroded sufficiently to permit us all to take full advantage of this new legislation in a way that it might have a positive impact on our work-life balance.