“Yeah, yeah – I don’t care about that flexibility stuff. I’ll take the green, thanks.”

Or is it loved as much as ever, as long as it doesn’t cost employees money?

Interesting questions are raised by a study conducted and recently published by Alexandre Mas, a Professor of Economics and Public Affairs at at Princeton University, and Amanda Pallais, a Paul Sack Associate Professor of Political Economy and Social Studies at Harvard University.

The professors conducted a study based on an actual recruitment for call center jobs. The jobs were advertised through a national job-search source, and 7,000 people applied. The applicants were racially diverse, predominantly female with an average age of 33, and half had some college but no degree. (The other half was evenly divided between high school only and college degree.)

The ad for the job did not say anything about the work schedule. But when applicants clicked on the link to more detailed information, they were offered a choice between a standard Monday-through-Friday/9-to-5 schedule, and one of the following “alternatives”:

No. 1: Full-time (40-hour) flexible schedule set by employee, report to company worksite in applicant’s city.

No. 2: Full-time or part-time flexible schedule set by employee (employee gets to determine number of hours worked as well as schedule), report to company worksite in applicant’s city.

No. 3: Full-time Monday-Friday 9-to-5 schedule, employee can telecommute.

No. 4: Full-time or part-time flexible schedule set by employee (employee gets to determine number of hours worked and schedule), employee can choose whether to telecommute or report to company worksite in applicant’s city.

No. 5: Full-time, variable hours set by employer, could include weekend and night work, at company worksite in applicant’s city. Employer will provide schedule at least one week in advance.

You can probably guess that “Alternative 5” was not very popular, and you’d be right, so we’ll go ahead and throw that one out right away. But 1-4 sound decent, don’t they?

That flexibility will cost ya

The catch was that the alternatives paid $1 an hour less than the full-time, fixed-schedule, on-site “standard” job. So the question was — will the applicants prefer “flexibility,” or will they go for the money? Hint:

The study found that most people were not willing to take a cut in pay to have flexible schedules, even if they were able to set those schedules themselves, leading the authors of the study to conclude that flexible scheduling may be overrated as an employee “perk.”

On the other hand, a significant minority of applicants was willing to take a pay cut to be able to work from home. Most of the applicants willing to do this were females with young children. (The study found that this preference of females was not significant enough to account for a gender-based pay gap.)

Moral of the story

So, what does this study tell us about employee relations? Here is what jumped out at me:

  1. Money is a big deal. Money was never a small deal, of course, but in the past — when employment and our economy were more stable than they are now — employees often gave a lot of value to non-monetary rewards. In fact, sometimes good communication, perceptions of fairness, and lack of favoritism were more important than the pay. (Back in those days, “flexibility” wasn’t much of a thing.) This study indicates that money may be the biggest priority now, and perhaps even more so for young people entering the workforce.
  2. Work-life balance is still important, but the old-fashioned Monday-through-Friday, 9-to-5, on-site work schedule may be a pretty good way to create and maintain it. It’s (roughly) when everybody else is working, and (roughly) everyone else is off at the same time, so it’s easy to plan most social and family events. And there is plenty of time before 9 a.m. and after 5 p.m. to exercise, run errands, walk the dog, and do all of those other things we all have to do.
  3. Nobody likes variable schedules set by employers. (With the possible exception of the employers.)
  4. Telecommuting continues to be popular with everybody, and especially with women who have young children.

The full study, “Valuing Alternative Work Arrangements,” is available for $5, and I purchased and read it before writing this post. I am not going to post the pdf here because the professors may get some income from the sales, and I don’t want to deprive them. But here is a link to the abstract.

Image Credit: Still image from flickr, Creative Commons license, by David Goehring.