The best employees show unending loyalty to work, staying long hours and being on call for bosses or clients. At least, that’s the credo of 21st-century American capitalism.
But it doesn’t have to be this way. Even though long, unpredictable hours have become a feature of many jobs, and people who work them now earn disproportionately more, some employers have figured out how to cede more control over where or when work gets done.
It’s happening even in occupations where face time and on-call availability seem essential, like finance or food service. There are signs that, with unemployment at the lowest point in half a century, more companies are turning to flexible work arrangements to recruit workers — and in some cases, creating a model for how work in the United States could be remade.
At Credigy, a finance company near Atlanta, any worker can arrive late, leave early or work from home, no questions asked, as long as the work gets done — and even the members of the senior leadership team do so. It’s a different world from most professional services companies, which require long hours in the office.
At Miss B’s Cafe in Louisburg, Kansas, servers collaborate on their schedules so they can fill in for anyone who needs a day off, and the kitchen manager bakes brunch pastries the evening before so she can attend yoga on weekend mornings. It’s unlike many service-sector jobs, in which schedules can be assigned at the last minute.
The long and unpredictable hours that have resulted from America’s obsession with work have spread from the so-called greedy professions, like law, finance and consulting, to many other jobs, both salaried and hourly. It’s a major driver of gender inequality: The increasing wage premiums of long hours have pushed many couples with equal educations to take on unequal roles, because if they’re parents, they can’t be on call at work unless someone else is on call at home.
Working like this also contributes to burnout, stress and poor health — without necessarily helping productivity. It’s one of the reasons that Americans have among the lowest levels of happiness and work-life balance in the developed world.
Control over the time and location of work is the key to closing gender gaps, according to research by Claudia Goldin, an economist at Harvard. The changes can be small, like allowing employees to step away during the day, work remotely or shift their schedules, said Annie Dean, the co-founder of Werk, which provides companies with flexibility data and tools.
Driven by competition for workers, more employers have begun offering these benefits (while still providing stable wages and benefits, unlike in the gig economy). Sixty-eight percent allow workers to telecommute as needed, up from 54% in 2014, according to the Society for Human Resource Management. Twenty-seven percent offer the flexibility to work outside normal business hours, up from 22%.
“For the last 10 years, employers have been used to having it all their own way,” said Martha Gimbel, an economist at Indeed, the job search site. “In a tight labor market, they’re having to compete in a way they’re not used to.”
Stanford University has discovered that offering shorter hours is a way to tap an available and highly educated group of workers. More than 600 of its staff members have reduced schedules. “The labor market is incredibly tight in Silicon Valley, and suddenly you’re able to access a whole labor pool of people,” said Nicholas Bloom, an economist there. “They’re highly qualified people and they’re very loyal, because there are not 50 other jobs like that.”
Even when people work long hours, it’s unlikely they’re actually working the whole time. At Unlimited Power, which makes portable solar grids in Greenville, South Carolina, everyone has a 26-hour workweek but is paid for a 40-hour one (based on average pay for similar jobs in the area). Chris Petrella, the chief executive, said people are just as productive because they work more efficiently. Unlike at his old job in management consulting, they rarely use email (they text instead) and they “stop having meetings, and meetings about meetings.”
“Once you implement it, you’re like, ‘OK, a lot of the stuff we do at work really isn’t productive and it really isn’t work,’” he said. “It’s not: Go in on Monday and work eight hours a day until the weekend. It’s: This is the project I need to get done, and I only need to be here a few hours a day, so I might as well use those productively.”
Technology has helped employers be able to call on employees at all hours, but it has also helped employees be able to work at different times and places.
At Auth0, which makes security technology for businesses, nearly all the employees work remotely — 475 people across 32 countries. (Jobs like receptionist are the exception.) The chief executive leaves at 4 p.m. to pick up his children.
The key, said Melinda Starbird, its vice president for human resources, is technology for messaging and video conferencing. One result has been far fewer internal emails or meetings, said Starbird, who comes to the Seattle office a couple of days a week and works from home the rest of the time.
Senior managers and high earners are more likely to be on call outside business hours, but they’re also more likely than a junior or hourly employee to be able to step out midday.
That’s true at Wente Vineyards, a winery in Livermore, California. Grape pickers, wine bottlers and tasting room servers cannot easily take extended breaks. But during their employment anniversary month, they receive eight hours off to use as they please — taking a few hours off on a few different days — and the company has considered expanding those breaks to other times of the year. It has begun training people to do more jobs so they can easily fill in for other employees, said Amy Hoopes, the president.
Many white-collar jobs prioritize the employee’s time in the office. At BDO, the accounting firm, it’s especially true during tax season, when people work long hours with intense deadlines. So the company started busy-season breaks — short periods in which employees can leave work and not check their phones. They’ve taken children to the zoo or gone for a hike.
“We felt very strongly that it’s during the busiest time of year when day-to-day flex is most important,” said Marcee Harris Schwartz, the national director for diversity and inclusion. “When you’re working all the time is when you make mistakes or burn out or decide you’re leaving accounting forever.”
BDO also has “go dark weekends,” when people don’t log in to their work accounts for a weekend and assign a colleague to handle emergencies. Most professional services jobs require individual workers to be responsive to clients around the clock, but Schwartz said BDO had learned that there were multiple advantages when clients relied on a team instead.
A big part of making flexibility work is convincing people they can use it. That didn’t happen at Credigy, the finance firm, until it put in a formal set of benefits, with the help of Werk, and senior executives started using them, said Kim Williams, the senior director of employee experience.
“What we’ve encouraged is that you don’t need to justify the ask,” she said. “It’s not taboo anymore.”
The biggest use of the benefit has been for caregiving, but people have also used it for volunteering, exercising or taking classes. “Working mothers maybe had a louder voice for a long time, out of necessity, but we fully believed it’s an important issue not just for women and caregivers but for everybody,” she said.
Half of workers say they would switch jobs if they found one that offered them the ability to adjust their schedule as needed, and 37% would switch if they could work remotely at least part of the time, Gallup found. One recent study found that workers were willing to accept 20% less pay to avoid jobs in which employers set their schedules with a week’s notice and had them work evenings and weekends. Another found that people thought that setting their own schedule was equivalent to a 9% wage increase, and that telecommuting was worth a 4% raise.
It’s not clear yet whether benefits like these will outlast the competitive labor market. Real change for American workers would mean that entire industries question whether they need to work the way they do — fundamentally remaking how work gets done.
“It’s easy,” Gimbel said, “to mistake progress in a tight labor market for long-term systemic change.”