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Whatever Happened to Flextime?

Remember flextime?

Flextime was the much-ballyhooed benefit that was supposed to make life easier for working moms (not to mention anyone else who wanted a life outside the office) by allowing them to arrange their own workday schedules. Work-life consultants argued companies offering flextime to moms were going to benefit by not losing the labor of women who might otherwise decide to leave the workforce for the home front when they had children.

It sure sounded great. There was only one problem: many companies, it seemed, didn’t care for flextime so much.

A study released yesterday by the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM) reveals that the number of employers offering their employees flextime has plunged along with the American employment rate. According to SHRM, only 49% of all companies now offer employees the option of setting their own work-times, a decrease of five percent from last year.

Even more worrisome, however, the SHRM survey data reveals that the number of firms offering flextime has been declining for most of the previous decade, after peaking at almost two-thirds in 2002.

What happened? After all, some work-consultants actually argued that the current downturn would actually boost the cause of flextime, as employers would seek to offer their staff the flexible scheduling in lieu of salary increases, or even as an inducement to take a wage cut. It obviously didn’t work out that way.

Mark Schmidt, SHRM’s director of research, speculated to Sue Shellenbarger at the Wall Street Journal that layoffs in the financial services industry, where he claims the concept of flextime made inroads into the corporate culture, might have impacted this year’s number. I disagree. First, the financial sector is famed for its insane work hours. If those employers offered flextime, they weren’t actually expecting anyone to take them up on it.

Instead, the answer to the mystery of what killed flextime is right in the numbers. Once again, the number of firms offering employees the do-it-yourself scheduling perk began to decline in 2003, even as the economy was percolating quite nicely indeed. Why? Well, over the course of the naughties or the aughts or whatever you want to call the first decade of the 21st century, the culture of work intensified, especially for the upper middle class professionals most likely to be offered flexible working arrangements. Surveyors found prior to the start of the Great Recession in 2007, more than forty percent of employers were on the job more than fifty hours a week.

Things have only gotten worse since then. Productivity has surged in the past year, something most analysts attribute to companies working their remaining workers harder than ever. Employees, in turn, have very little leverage since, after all, there are now between five and six unemployed people for every job opening.  As a result, we either work under the conditions management would like, or we are likely to not be working at all. Not surprisingly, the SHRM survey also reveals falling rates of everything from corporate paid family leave to casual Friday’s at the office. Companies no longer have to make work fun to keep their employees at their desks.

So what do you think? Have you ever worked under flextime arrangement? And do you believe world of work has become more or less flexible since the current downturn began?

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